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  Soul All That Jazz
Year: 2020
Director: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, June Squibb
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Animated, Fantasy, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is holding down a job as a part-time music teacher at a New York City school, but he rarely finds satisfaction when the kids are half-interested at best for most of the time, and their playing isn't really up to scratch. But when he hears from the principal that he has now been awarded full-time status, he has mixed feelings: yes, there’s the job security and needed income, but he has always had his heart set on being a professional jazz musician, and that goal may be drifting further away. However, then he hears from a favourite jazz club that there may be an opening for a pianist that he could fill, and he is immediately interested...

Then Joe dies, the end. Ah, not quite the end, because this was a Pixar movie so despite their reputation for prompting tears in their audience, they were not going to be quite so cruel as all that. This was why our hero finds himself on a stairway to heaven (or nearest equivalent), wondering what is going on, as he barely noticed he was killed (falling into a manhole!) and did not expect on this, the one day when he wanted to be alive, that it would all go horribly wrong for him. What can he do to prevent this fate worse than - no, exactly the same as, death? There must be a way of sabotaging the process of moving into the afterlife to return to Earth.

Soul was obviously influenced by a certain type of fantasy movie that emerged in the nineteen-forties, when the studios were seeking to soothe the frazzled nerves of the wartime and just post-wartime public with reassurances that all those people they used to know and love who are now dead have merely transferred their life forces to a different plane of existence. Hence the comforting hand on the brow of films like It's a Wonderful Life or A Matter of Life and Death (whose staircase is referenced here), among many more, that continue to resonate with film buffs as well as the creators of pictures well into the future, and this was yet another variation.

Did it stand out? It was at a slight disadvantage in that it was meant to be released in theatres just as the coronavirus was taking hold, so Disney, after the odd, selected festival engagement, opted to cut their losses and not clog up their 2021 schedules any further, releasing it to their hit streaming service where it did comfortably well. But would it have been a bigger success in any other, non-Covid-19 year? This is hard to say, certainly Pixar are close to a sure thing at the box office, but the piece's obsessions with jazz and death may have put children off, since they're not really what the younglings should be preoccupied with. With older audiences, on the other hand, director and co-writer Pete Docter's concepts would resonate far more, for they would find its message of appreciating what you had in the moment appealing. Perhaps what Pixar's real advantage was that they were genuinely interested in people, what made them tick, and how they could help them.

The celebrity voice cast were present and correct, and putting in sterling work for the most part, with the character designs carefully rendered not to look like some racist stereotype which was always an issue when cartoons of non-white characters were employed. Yet by this point you would expect nothing less from Pixar, and it was their grasping for the profound that Soul actually, er, lived or died by. Joe's revelation late on that what he was living for was not his ambition, but the simple pleasure of existing and its myriad benefits might just have been what the world needed to hear at the time this was out, though there was a bittersweet quality even to that apparently positive, carpe diem encouragement that would have been present no matter if there had been a pandemic on or not. It's all very well to tell us of the wonder of being alive, but to genuinely appreciate it is a different matter - Joe needs his near-death experience to bring it home, and that's world-shakingly dramatic. But that wish to provide comfort, to cheer up your fellow soul, was a very human impulse, and this film was keen to emphasise kindness not remembered enough this century. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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