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Film Review: Soul

Dying the Day your Dreams Come True


Soul wasn’t a movie I intended to watch. Like many other stingy students I downloaded Disney+ solely for the free trial in order to rewatch Hamilton. My free access for 7 days ended before I remembered to cancel my subscription leaving me with a month more Disney+ than I initially wanted.

In order to make the most of the $7.50 I’d spent I perused through Disney’s nostalgia-packed library of childhood classics and watched Inside Pixar, a documentary on the creators behind Pixar films, from writers to directors to graphic designers and character artists. Each episode takes us through their creative process with the first episode focusing on Kemp Powers, the co-writer and co-director of Soul.

The premise of the movie as surmised by Powers is this: “Soul is the story of a man who has always felt like his life’s purpose was to be a musician. The main character in the film, Joe Gardner, is a middle-school band teacher who dreams of being a professional jazz musician, and on the day that he gets his big break, basically gets his dream, after decades and decades of work, he dies. But feeling cheated by the universe, Joe refuses to die. He’s willing to do anything to fight his way back to Earth, to get a second chance to live the life that he feels like he’s earned.”

Hearing Kemp Powers talk about his movie, how it’s a dream project for him and is about a character who’s “a black man, who’s about my age, who’s from New York like me, who’s also a jazz musician. And I love jazz music,” adds a layer of realism and authenticity to this movie. As a character Joe faces many of the same artistic struggles Kemp and other artists face. Years pass as he teaches the thing he loves rather than creating the music himself, his mother worries over the financial strain of unrelentingly pursuing his dream, and in many ways he is also beholden to chance, needing to know the right people and be in the right place at the right time.

While in the limbo between life and death, Joe’s soul is transported to an ethereal plain of existence where new souls are born and old souls depart. In this plane of existence new souls must find their ‘spark,’ the one thing on Earth that completely inspires them, in order to get their “Earth pass,” and begin their lives. Joe’s spark is jazz. One interesting real-world tidbit found out by American psychologist and creative researcher Ellis Paul Torrance in 1958 is that “One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment, and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something – your dream, your image of the future.” Torrance conducted a study whereby he asked children “what they were in love with” and “what they wanted to do when they grew up.” The results found 22 years later were that the children that fell in love with the image they had of themselves in the future were more likely to have greater creative achievements overall including over those with higher academic promise. That said, Soul, questions the true importance of fulfilling one’s creative dreams.

In Soul our other main character, a soul named 22, has been unable to find her spark for millenia, her name suggesting she is the 22nd soul to be born in the entirety of existence. This leaves us with two contrasting characters, one unable to find their passion and another who’s willing to cheat death for it. Joe is a career-driven man who has dedicated his life to his passion, it is his very reason for living, and yet through the character of 22 we see another way living, one that, as New Yorker critic A.O. Scott puts it, is “a mightily ambitious warning against taking ambition too seriously.”

Much like La La Land, this movie is an ode to Jazz. It functions on two levels, jaunty jazz in the heart of New York on the earthly plain as composed by Jon Batiste, and the luminous otherworldly score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the metaphysical plain. The musicality of this movie is ingrained within the story and immersed me completely. Ironically enough, Daveed Diggs – Lafayettttee – also raps in this movie.

For me this movie ascends to the Pixar hall of fame alongside Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story, it is poignant, sincere, and joyous in its celebration of simply just existing.


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