Updated: Sep 1, 2021
There have been few films released that have thoroughly defeated the idea that animation is a genre rather than a medium for all kinds of stories. All creators have a goal to work with, and limitations to overcome. What I now believe to be the epitome of animation that can be used to prove the real value of animation as a medium is a film that tackles the idea of creation, passion, limitations and purpose. Perfect.
Soul manages to balance its themes of life and music through the character of Joe, to whom, life IS music. He has been living in a world where there are very few opportunities for musicians, even fewer for Jazz. When the opportunity of a lifetime does land at his feet, he dies a sudden death.
The small summary I gave above was gathered through the musical elements in the first act. The film starts with an awful orchestral performance by Joe's students. Teaching is clearly not his passion. The next musical queue is given to us by Connie, who is playing her Trombone with more passion than Joe is used to, much to his delight. The next queue comes as he shows the influence of music on his life to his students, as they are awestruck by his sheer talent.
This is his passion.
Essentially every musical piece in this film has character or narrative value. A shift from an upbeat score to an echoey silence shifts the film's narrative as quickly as losing a life. A playful and optimistic beat as Joe descends down to Earth to get his life back tells the story as much as a melancholic and hopeful one does as he leads a terrified Soul to start hers.
This is not Pete Doctore's first Rodeo with this concept. Anyone who has seen UP can still hear the slow notes of "Happily Married" by Michael Giacchino, which was narrating the story of Carl and Ellie's perfect lives before being a constant reminder of loss for the rest of the film. And let us not forget the quintessential example of narration through music in Pixar, Remember Me from Coco.
For as long as we remember Ernesto De La Cruz's Remember Me, we empathise with a Miguel who does not want anything to stand in the way of him and his passion for music, not even his family. Ernesto's song perfectly captures his iconic phrase, "You have to seize your moment". The song is an anthem to legacy, one that he wants to live on forever in the hearts of millions. It is not until we learn the real origins of the songs that we get a clearer image. The song was created by Hector as an ode to the love for his daughter . Miguel was well on his way to follow in the footsteps of Ernesto, leading him down a path of treachery. But much like with Soul, his climactic performance was not in front of an audience who would one day have erected a statue in his honour, but to his aging grandmother so that she doesn't forget about the father who never really abandoned her.
The most notable achievement of Soul is how it makes everything seem more vivid and ambient. If you listen to its soundtrack after having watched the film, each piece will have you strongly associating with its respective scene within the film. Nowhere is the narrative abilities of this film apparent than in the climactic musical piece.
I am not talking about the performance with Dorthea Williams, no. From the very beginning of the film, we are hinted towards a huge climactic performance where Joe gets to play with her in front of a huge audience, and we are given that. But also, not really. This performance comes after the lowest point in the story. Joe has devolved into pure obsession with his big performance and wilfully took away 22's only chance at life. The performance itself plays out like a set of highlights. We are concerned about the cost of this performance rather than the performance itself, and thus do not get to experience an uncut 1-hour finale of it. The scene does not intend to distract you from the horrific implications of Joe's decision.
Once the performance is over, Joe is back to feeling empty. This is what he thought his life would lead up to, what we thought the film would lead up to, yet he goes back with a confusing emptiness. If this was the happiest that he was ever going to be, and he still feels empty, then is he in for a downwards journey forever? If this is where his life is supposed to peak, is this it?
Now, for the real climactic piece, and the contrast of it against the previous performance is drastic. Everything here feels improvised. Joe starts off with the objects in his pockets that triggered the memories of 22, and how much they really meant to her. How can it be expressed in a way we can perceive? Joe starts to play a note, then a few of them, and then a chord. Slowly, he goes back to his own life and thinks about what life was to him. It wasn't his performance with Dorthea Williams, it was playing his piano for his dad. It was standing at the edge of a sea as he felt the waves washed by his feet. It was eating a really nice pie at a diner while the raindrops pattered over a misty window. All of this was the full realisation of his journey. This is the musical piece his life was about. And this is something he could not deprive 22 of.
As I was watching the film, for those two-odd minutes, the film wasn't happening. Everything, from Dorthea Williams to 22, and even Joe, was not there. Only the taste of the transcending music. I like to think this is what it was like for Joe as well as he was playing. At that moment, only the music than encircles the room exists. This music pushes him to a zone of passion, the place larger than life itself,