The idea of shaping “Soul” around jazz music was always a very personal one for the film’s director, Pete Docter. “I grew up loving and playing jazz myself. Jazz became such a central theme, not only on a sort of cosmetic level but also deep symbolism,” he tells Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Film Animation panel (watch above). He specifically recounts a story of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis playing a concert together. Hancock played some wrong notes but Davis ended up adjusting his own notes and ended up making the misplayed chords work. That lesson of taking anything that happens and turning it into something of value stood out for Docter. “When we heard that story, we were just like that is exactly what we are trying to say in the film. We don’t control where were born or what circumstances fall to us but we can do something beautiful with it.”
“Soul,” which is currently streaming on Disney+, centers on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher in his 40s whose true dream is to make it as a successful jazz musician. Right after getting his biggest career opportunity, Joe suffers an unfortunate accident and finds himself outside his body. He tries to navigate his way back to his body while being accompanied by an infant soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has yet to find her spark that would allow her to be put into a human body. Docter is a two-time Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature (“Up” in 2009 and “Inside Out” in 2015) and was also nominated in the category for “Monsters, Inc.” in 2001. He’s also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay four times (“Toy Story” in 1995, “WALL-E” in 2008, “Up” and “Inside Out”) and once for Best Animated Short Film (“Mike’s New Car” in 2002).
Docter also explained how Kemp Powers was first brought on and how he ended up serving as a co-director on the film. It stemmed from the decision that Joe should be black. “When we made that call, we said we’re going to need some help because I don’t know anything about growing up black or in New York or being a musician. Kemp fit all of those qualifications.” While he initially was brought on to help flesh out the character of Joe, Powers would let his curiosity run wild. “We’d find him down in animation or talking to the set designers or costumes. He just had ideas for everything and it quickly became clear his expertise and knowledge of the subject matter was way beyond me and really what we needed for the film.”
Docter also defends the film from those who might think that the subject matter is too dark, citing that there are many great comedies about death and that the film is at its heart, about life. “It’s hard to talk about life without making it precious or shining a spotlight on the fact that we’re only gonna be here for so long, so I think that’s where those elements came in.” He also said that for some people, animation is stuck in being in a certain place and he viewed it as a responsibility of his to challenge that notion. “Animation could really do anything. I feel like that’s, for those of us lucky enough to be in these places of making films, I feel like that’s kind of our responsibility, to stretch the boundaries of that and ask more of what we’re doing.”
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