Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 21, 2021 7:37 pm 
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Joe loses his "soul" but gets a good gig in this timid Pixar step into black creative experience

Time's Stephanie Zacharek, writing of Soul, says Pixar films are "the most philosophical of the animation world," but the fact they "deal overtly with existential problems or anxieties" might sometimes trick us into "believing they’re better or deeper than they actually are." Such high-flown preoccupations can be distracting - from making a good movie; because solving all the problems of existence or saying something profound can just lead to corniness, or empty fluff. It seems often by accident that this successful studio, now owned by Disney, turns out to make an offbeat film that may be charming or good. Here you sympathize with Joe, the unmarried black jazz pianist in New York, approaching middle age, who's wound up being a middle school band teacher for so long his dream of becoming a successful jazz pianist has become a joke at the local barbershop. The movie enters into Joe's soul, his afterlife, his return to life, his sense of fulfilment - all that jazz. Give PIxar credit: focusing on a black would-be jazz musician is a stretch for them. This is the first time a black writer has received the co-directing title to a Pixar film - Kemp Powers, living his sudden moment. He also wrote One Night in Miami, his play now adapted as a Netflix movie. Pixar deserves credit for this step. But don't expect a miracle. This is a step, not a sprint.

Pixar teases with the hint that this movie is about the breakthrough of a black would-be jazz pianist - or about jazz music much at all, because those are only part of what's going on. It's sort of that, and a lot about "souls" in that other sense, and the afterlife. By a fluke, just after being offered a full-time position after years of teaching at the school, Joe is offered a gig at the Half Note, a Lower Manhattan jazz club obviously based on the Village Vanguard, in the Dorothea Williams Quartet (Dorothea is voiced by Angela Bassett). But he gets so excited on the way home to get ready he falls down an open manhole and dies. Or almost dies. This is where, after only ten minutes of the film, a long episode up in the nether world follows, where sketchy figures with odd British accents assemble and arrange souls before or after death. I zoned out. If this is where the dealing "Overtly with existential problems and anxieties" comes in, they lost me. It seems mostly tiny light blue Pixar-style blobs. A slightly larger blue-blob form of Joe is there too. His eagerness to get the gig leads him to beg for permission to return to earth - you know the drill - along with a recalcitrant semi-soul critter known only as "22." Here begins a kind of metaphysical fantasy of a soul reanimating his nearly dead body in a hospital.

And a comedy of errors, which carries us through the middle section of the film, when - by accident - Joe's soul (voiced by Jamie Foxx) enters into the body of a chubby pussy cat, and "22" (voiced by Tiny Fey) enters into the body of Joe. They become a team and 22, who had never wanted to be sent to earth at all, gradually learns to love pizza, lollipops, getting a haircut in a Black barbershop (the most animated and rich sequence in the movie), and being a jazz mentor, a jazz player and a beloved son. You almost forget the nether world nonsense and the cockney soul manipulators. But they come back. And the back and forth with Joe's body gets confusing, with Joe seeming to be simultaneously in Queens and up in the stratosphere.

What satisfies in Soul is the well-realized New York City milieu. The middle school classrooms were based on real ones. Astoria, Queens and lower Manhattan come through really feeling like their actual New York counterparts, with all the concentration of energy, movement, and traffic and crowds that well-stuffed city delivers. A black actor - Jamie Foxx - actually does get to voice Joe, the disappointed jazz pianist. But some have thought having his body invaded by Tina Fey was rather racist. A lot of the time this black man is possessed by a white woman's voice and a prickly sprite's mind. Joe is bored with teaching at a middle school, which makes it odd that this setting was crafted in consultation with a real Queens music teacher who loved his work.

PIxar has always gotten largely a free ride, and so not surprisingly some reviewers find the supernatural afterlife and beforelife world of Soul "beautiful." How come then it is made up so largely of little light blue and white blobs? It may be ingenious, but it's merely a chilly distraction from the more interesting events involving Joe and the Half Note. Armand White, whom I'll quote further, calls these sequences in the great beyond (or before) "cute existential surrealism." In the event, Joe or his body invaded by a now thoroughly adapted 22 does splendidly in his first night in the Dorothea Williams Quartet and Dorothea welcomes him to the band - but he has waited so long for this moment that when it's over he feels strangely let down.

Is this Pixar saying that ordinary life, like playing in a good jazz band, isn't enough for them, and they must have conferences and manipulations in the celestial spheres as well? That's what they get. But for the humble viewer, it's the moments of real life, like the dry cleaning establishment Joe's family runs and his mother's love and concern, the too-brief montaged-moment of a successful concert at a jazz club, and the camaraderie and group dialogue at the barbershop, that are the moments of Soul that have soul.

How satisfying is Soul for jazz lovers? Somewhat but not very. Its - again, frustrated, derailed - jazz piano protagonist is just a lovable doofus. Where is the celebration of jazz? Of being a creative musician? Armand White thinks the film wants to "alienate black music culture from its gospel roots" (misleading with the R&B hints of the "Soul" title); and to "idolize" jazz performance falsifying it with an emphasis on celebrity. It also does coopt and water down jazz and the jazz experience. At the end Joe is allowed to return to earth, again (and again you know the drill) but, after living his life dreaming of being a jazz pianist, now doesn't know for sure what he will do. He's had the soul drained out of him and now he has had the jazz drained out too.

"A Concerto Is a Conversation"

You might get the theme of a black musician making it better in the 13-minute film, "A Concerto Is a Conversation," not about jazz, but about Kris Bowers, a young black Julliard graduate and composer whose violin concerto composition, and this film, are a homage to his 91-year-old grandfather Horace Bowers Sr., who hitchhiked from Jim Crow Florida to Los Angeles with $28 and became the owner of a dry cleaning business by the age of 20. Telling that with conversation, old photographs and voiceover is more effective than it would have been summarized in a cute Pixar condensation. This is packaged too, but it has the edge of real experience attached to it.*

Soul, 100 mins., debuted at London Oct. 2020 and showed in festivals at Lyon, Rome and Busan. It released on the internet in the US and many other countries Dec. 25, 2020. Screened for this review on Disney+ Feb. 21, 2021. Metascore: 83%.
*"A Concerto Is a Conversation" is on the short documentary Oscar short list. Ava DuVernay is an executive producer.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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