Joe Gardner feels out of tune. The protagonist of Pixar’s latest effort, Soul, out on Christmas Day via Disney Plus, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a fortysomething middle school band teacher in Queens, New York, who dreams of playing jazz piano professionally—but can’t seem to catch a break. Then a former student, Curley (Ahmir Khalib Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove), asks Joe to audition for a jazz quartet led by the venerable saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). “I would die a happy man if I could perform with Dorothea Williams!” Joe gushes to Curley.
He nails his tryout, his fingers flying over the keys as he seamlessly performs a catchy jazz number (composed by talented bandleader Jon Batiste). Joe lands the gig performing with the group that night at the Half Note, a dead ringer for Manhattan’s legendary jazz venue the Village Vanguard. He leaves the venue ecstatic that his career is finally taking off. Seconds later, he steps into an open manhole in the middle of the road and dies. (I realize this sounds like a spoiler, but I promise it’s not.)
Suddenly Joe finds himself on a conveyor belt—a purgatory of sorts—hurtling toward a white chasm dubbed the Great Beyond. But Joe refuses to croak the same day he’s getting his due. Thanks to what we’ll call a rip in the space-time continuum (scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s otherworldly bleeps and bloops), Joe ends up somewhere he’s not supposed to be: the Great Before, an amusingly bureaucratic zone where burgeoning souls are given personalities before they reach Earth. There he accidentally becomes a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a stubborn soul who both doesn’t want to leave familiar creature comforts and has managed to annoy the hell out of a cadre of famous mentors, including Carl Jung and Muhammad Ali, for centuries. Joe and 22’s symbiotic relationship—between a soul who doesn’t want to die and a soul who doesn’t want to live, respectively—leads to misadventures that are at turns delightful and gut-wrenching.
Soul is hardly the first time Pixar has delved into existential territory, though it might be the only animated film in history that takes out its lead character before viewers can even start snacking on their bowls of popcorn. But as the film’s cowriter Mike Jones explains, Soul isn’t a rumination on dying. Nor does it take a stab at explaining what lies beyond life. “We didn’t go into this movie thinking we’re making a movie about death,” Jones says. “But we did go into it thinking we want to make a movie about what it means to live.”
Jones, an in-house screenwriter for Pixar who originally hails from San Antonio, wrote Soul with Pete Docter, the director of the studio’s smash tearjerker films Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out, and Kemp Powers, writer of the critically acclaimed play One Night in Miami, which will debut in early 2021 as a film. Soul notably marks the animation powerhouse’s first film helmed by a Black writer and director and a predominantly Black cast that includes two Texans (Foxx and Phylicia Rashad, who grew up in Terrell and Houston, respectively) in starring roles. The resulting flick, while flawed, is full of heart, a meditation on the mundane and the extraordinary moments that make existence fulfilling.
As Jones tells it, the film couldn’t be further from its initial incarnation, and it took four years of writing, scrapping, and reworking for Soul to come together. Back in 2016, Jones had been working as an independent contractor at Pixar for about three years. One day, when he was in between screenwriting projects, and discussing a new idea with Pete Docter, his employers suddenly said they no longer had a place for him at the company’s Emeryville, California, campus. Jones glumly handed over his key card and computer, dreading the six-hour drive back to Los Angeles. For decades after he’d left his native Texas, first for New York and then for the West Coast, Jones had scraped by as a working screenwriter, dreaming up films that were never made. Leaving Pixar meant that once again, he’d have to pound Hollywood pavement doing what working screenwriters call the “water tour”—the exhausting circuit of production house and studio meetings where aspiring writers are given a water bottle at every turn.
Jones was well on his way to L.A. when he got a call from Pixar. Docter found himself in the early stages of a new project, and he was glaring at a blank page. Did Jones want to come back and work with him on the idea? Jones turned the car around and promptly hoofed it back up to the Bay Area.
At the time, Docter and his wife had a young son; they were struck by his distinct personality. He had a particular way of being, far different from both of his parents. What if there were a place beyond space and time, Docter wondered, where souls were given certain personalities? A place alone does not make a movie, though, and that’s where Jones came in. He stresses the importance of giving a character agency, of showing how a protagonist’s choices alter the story. “My task was to sit with Pete and think: ‘What are the two characters we can put in this story that will help drive what he’s trying to say?’” Once Jones and Docter settled on the concept of two souls crashing into each other’s lives, they went to work trying to come up with who their protagonist, Joe, would be.
The team had initially envisioned Joe as a struggling actor who dies on the heels of snagging his first big break on Broadway (in a cheeky twist, said play was meant to be Death of a Salesman). In time, the two landed on having Joe be a jazz musician instead. Docter and Jones are fanatics of the genre; as a young man growing up in Texas, Jones would drive the lengthy stretch between San Antonio and Wichita Falls, where his mother lived, with a boombox fastened to the dash via a bungee cord, listening to jazz tunes on repeat. Docter and Jones then brought in a writing partner: Kemp Powers, a native New Yorker and former jazz musician whose play One Night in Miami had blown them away. “We hired him based on that piece of material, because it was so powerful and so emotional,” Jones says of Powers.
From there Powers, Jones, and Docter mapped out the entire film on index cards stuck to a corkboard, trying to identify key moments, climactic arcs, and memorable lead and supporting characters alike (Terry, an abacus-toting rule stickler from the Great Beyond that Powers came up with, makes for a particularly fun antagonist). Their collaborative script comprises the film’s emotive core, interspersing, say, a smart joke about the Knicks’s losing record and a nod to the Pizza Rat meme, as well as a subtle acknowledgment of the racial profiling that can happen when a Black person tries to hail a cab. One of Soul’s most tender and resonant scenes, which Powers wrote, sees Joe spending time in a uniquely Black space: his local barbershop, for which Powers drew on his own experiences at his local haunt in Los Angeles. “Even if you feel like a small person, or the world doesn’t respect you or treat you right, in the barbershop you have worth,” says Powers in the documentary Inside Pixar. “Your opinion matters. When you’re in the chair for those twenty minutes, you’re king.”
To help with telling this story, the group convened a cultural trust comprising Pixar employees and luminaries outside the studio, including Bradford Young, a cinematographer whose credits include Selma and who’s an expert in lighting Black skin; Herbie Hancock, a jazz icon who consulted on the film’s music; actor Daveed Diggs, who plays Paul, Joe’s snarky acquaintance; and Dr. Johnnetta Cole, an anthropologist and former president of Spelman College whom Jones says was key to developing Joe’s character. For the role, Foxx drew on his background as a classically trained pianist, as well as his time performing at the bygone Dallas venue Popsicle Toes. He gives the down-on-his-luck Joe a singular pluckiness and spark. Through his portrayal, Foxx makes you feel certain that Joe can get back to Earth and be the jazz phenom he dreams of becoming, even when he’s caught in a holding pattern between life and death.
While the script had been put to bed and was well into the animation stage by the summer, the Black Lives Matter uprising and ongoing racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s killing caused Pixar to take a step back and reflect. “As a studio we looked at ourselves, about where we are being inclusive,” Jones says. “Where we are giving opportunities? Are we hiring and promoting a diverse set of people and diverse set of artists that can help make these films more honest?” Toward that end, Jones says the studio is looking to implement a cultural trust for all future Pixar films, and to include a more diverse set of contributors at every step of the process, as well as in the directors’ chair. “You’ll see a bunch of new filmmakers, with their own points of view in terms of both story and design, and I think it’s our chance to really expand the palette,” Docter told the San Francisco Chronicle of Pixar’s future. “But let’s not take anything for granted here. I think we still have a long way to go. Diversity has especially been very challenging in animation, historically. It’s an especially homogenized bunch of artists.”
It’s thrilling to see Pixar expand the range of stories it tells and to do so with nuance. But Soul is not without its shortcomings. For instance, the film hints at a character named Lisa, a romantic interest of Joe’s, whom we hear of in passing but never learn more about. Other characters, and pivotal moments in the film, merited further depth and expansion too. One especially moving scene involves Joe going to his mother, Libba (Rashad), at her dress shop in Queens, in hopes that she’ll fix his ripped suit. Rashad plays Libba with achingly poignant care and concern: She worries about Joe, particularly because she saw how much his late father, who was also a musician, struggled with the instability of his artistic career. But she doesn’t want to stifle Joe’s ambitions, either. “Does this gig have a pension, health insurance?” she asks him. “Music is all I think about, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep at night,” a frustrated Joe explains. “This isn’t about my career. It’s my reason for living, and I know Dad felt the same way.” Through a handful of flashbacks, we learn that Joe’s father was also instrumental in nurturing his son’s love of music. Still, I found myself wishing Soul had spent more time with Joe and his family, and wondering what stories they could have shared with one another and, by extension, us.
The team behind Soul couldn’t have anticipated that their film would be released while millions of people were away from their own families, holed up at home, at the tail end of a year punctuated by staggering loss, instead of communing together at a theater. But here we are. Soul is arriving at a fraught time when our usual modes of being, and grieving, are entirely upended. In this way, it provides a salient opportunity to take stock.
It’s something that’s been on Jones’s mind, too. In 2018, while Jones was in the middle of writing Soul, his father, who had dementia, took a turn for the worse. Jones would fly down twice a month to a memory care unit in San Antonio to spend time with him as he slowly faded away. “When I would go down and hold his hand, as he was passing away, I would think: ‘As he’s looking back in his life, what is he remembering about it? And what’s important to him?’ And I started thinking, ‘What’s important to me?’” Jones says. “And I’ll tell you one of the most important things, to me, was to be able to be able to fly down there and hold his hand as he passed away. That became a north star for the movie as well, in terms of what it means to live a fulfilled life.”
This story originally stated that Docter conceptualized the idea for Soul when his son was an infant. It has been amended to reflect that his son was a young man then.