It's About Soul: NUS Jazz & Pixar's Soul
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Ten minutes into Pixar’s Soul, its protagonist is dead. Two hours later, the movie ends, having taught us the meaning to life. In between, Jazz provides setting, soundtrack and motivation. It injects colour into the scene. It swings motion into the plot. But what is Jazz, exactly?
Concept art from the movie Soul. Pixar/Disney
Most of us may have a vague understanding: dimly lit speakeasies, swinging basslines gliding under smooth brass solos, interleaved with lilting, throaty crooning. Some might even know the heavy hitters; Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “What a Wonderful World” springs to mind. More recently, Jacob Collier’s Grammy-winning rendition of the Jazz standard “Moon River” might have crossed our YouTube recommendations. But for many of us, Soul was our first real introduction to Jazz as a genre.
So, when NUS Jazz Band’s Vice-President, Joanne, turned up outside my dorm room looking for a thumb drive to print some documents, I jumped at the chance to follow her down to UTown to find out more about the genre, and why it has captured the hearts of so many.
Walking to the Centre of the Arts under the midday sun, Joanne gives me a brief history of Jazz: the genre is intimate and integral to African-American culture, dating back to the earliest days of segregation. Having developed from a mix of blues and ragtime, Jazz was mainly played in African-American establishments, a stark contrast from the classical orchestras or folk music preferred by white Americans at the time.
"The beauty of Jazz is that every instrument is supposed to sound like a voice."
“The beauty of Jazz is that every instrument is supposed to sound like a voice,” Joanne shares. Instead of the restrained counter-melodies of a classical orchestra, Jazz instruments imitate the grit and soul of the voice, from the saxophone to the bass. Each musician is given the space to solo, even those ordinarily consigned to dull rhythm by pop songs (looking at you, drummers and bassists).
From the NUS Jazz Band’s 2021 concert: Polka Dots and Moonbeams. YouTube/NUS Jazz Band
This is the defining feature of Jazz: individuality. Not pitch, not conformity, not the rules that other genres are defined by. “People often can’t understand why they need to develop themselves individually. But in Jazz, you need to be able to stand alone as a musician, because people are so unique and individual that each one stands out.”
Joanne smiles as she tells me about professional Jazz auditions — the band plays a Jazz standard and the auditionee has to solo on top of it. I can relate to the hint of incredulity in her tone. As an amateur musician, the prospect of expressing myself creatively while proving my technical skills, all under pressure, is absolutely terrifying.
But it is just this opportunity that Soul’s protagonist, Joe Gardner, craves. Indeed, in the scene where Joe auditions for his dream band, the instrumentalists simply launches into song without preamble. Joe scrambles for a moment, asking the band, “Wh- What are we playing?” The next moment, his hesitation falls away and he is engrossed, losing himself to the music. The band fades out, and Joe is illuminated by the soft glow of purple and blue lights, dimming and brightening in time with his solo.
Joe Gardner, the protagonist of Soul, loses himself to the music as he plays a piano solo. Pixar/Disney
As a vocalist, Joanne has no shortage of experience: she majored in Voice for six years at the School of the Arts (SOTA). With all of her classical training, I was curious as to why she would join the NUS Jazz Band.
“I didn’t feel like it fit me.” The beautiful thing about classical music is that it is clean, elegant and poised. Joanne draws a playful comparison: “If you want to confess to someone, classical music is the equivalent of poetry — it will do anything except say, ‘I love you’.”
Instead of expressing your individuality, classical music is more about capturing the beauty of the original piece and paying homage to the composer. “It’s trying to perform what someone else has done."
"For Jazz, they don’t want to hear anyone else but you."
"But for Jazz, they don’t want to hear anyone else but you. That open self-expression was one of the things I struggled with the most when I began, but also one of the most liberating things about Jazz.” During one of Joanne’s practice sessions, she shares that her Jazz teacher had asked her to close her eyes, play a movie scene in her head and react to it authentically. Her previous run had been technically sound but lacking in soul, something she compares to meaning what you say to someone and not meaning it at all. For a genre like Jazz, which acts as a dialogue between band and audience, it makes all the difference.
More concept art from Soul. Pixar/Disney
This focus on self-expression in Jazz is presented to Soul’s audiences as Joe’s reason to live. He refuses to begin living his life until he stands on that stage. Every day that does not lead to achieving that dream is wasted. His waking moments are fixated on that light at the end of the tunnel of his current existence. And just as his dream seems to come true, Joe’s life is abruptly cut short.
The rest of the movie is a series of curveballs for Joe: he finds himself trapped in the Great Before, a cosmic plane of pre-existence where newborn souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before going to the Earth. There, he becomes an unwilling mentor to 22, a soul who refuses to find a ‘spark’, the singular passion that will lead their life.
A series of hijinks has 22 in Joe’s body back on Earth, where 22 learns that life holds an untold number of small delights that make it worth living, and finally gets her spark. Joe, on the other hand, is zeroed in on making it to the jazz club so he can play with his dream band, leading to an argument where he tells 22 that she is just piggybacking off his experiences, and does not have a true purpose in life. They part ways bitterly, but Joe returns to his body and makes his way to the jazz club where the band is waiting.
Finally on his own, Joe pulls off the performance of his dreams, but to his dismay, his life remains unchanged. He does not get a storybook ending; his relationships and even his outlook on life are not magically perfect now that Joe has fulfilled his life goals. Soul is a story about how achieving your dreams does not wrap up your life in a neat little bow — life is a lot messier, and unlike a fairy tale, it carries on past the happily ever after.
After learning that the ‘spark’ is not a singular passion, but simply the intention to live, Joe reconciles with 22, showing her a small petal that caught her attention while she was on Earth. 22 remembers the many little joys she felt in her brief time alive and regains her spark, while Joe returns to his life with renewed determination to really live it this time.
22, currently occupying Joe's body, looks up in wonder at the autumn leaves. Pixar/Disney
For both our protagonists, purpose always meant a dominating, driving passion that would bring ultimate fulfilment and make life worth living – Joe pursued it, while 22 rejected it. But at the end of Soul, we learn, along with Joe and 22, that the life we are given is already full of small pleasures, and we are already able to enjoy it and live it to its fullest, all without achieving some main purpose.
Pete Docter, Soul’s co-writer and co-director, told NPR in an interview that "the movie's aim is really to say that we're already enough. We all can walk out of the door and enjoy life without needing to accomplish or prove anything. And that's really freeing."
Joanne’s journey with Jazz resonates with this conclusion. As we part ways, she tells me, “Jazz has been an entire arc of personal development for me, but what I’ve learnt is that your self is enough and all you need to do is present it.”