(A version of this article was shared with Laughing Place and published on January 16, 2024.)
At long last, one of Disney-Pixar’s greatest storytelling achievements – the 2020 film Soul – is getting the big screen treatment. The first of three Pixar films released exclusively to Disney+ as a result of the COVID pandemic, Soul is an emotional journey through some of life’s most personal mysteries, told through music and animation.
To celebrate the long-awaited January 12th debut of the Academy Award-winning Soul in theaters, enjoy a few fun facts about Pixar’s musically masterful film.
The heart of Soul has to be Joe Gardner, an “everyman” trying to make his mark on the world – a tough task when living in the bustle of New York City. Joe is the first African American main protagonist of a Pixar movie. Interestingly, the struggling musician was originally conceived as both an actor and an animator, both of whom were looking to catch their first big break. The filmmakers (specifically co-director Kemp Powers) switched Joe to being a jazz musician, correctly realizing that the qualities of music and the struggles revealed within evoke a stronger sense of sympathy than those of either an actor or animator.
Earlier versions of the film depicted Joe as being much more cynical to his students, and the character would openly voice his opinion of how they view themselves. While the creators intended this to be a source of inspiration, they realized this outspokenness made Joe unlikable. In a revamp of the character, Powers and musician Jon Batiste – who composed, arranged and performed many of the songs for the film – reinvented how Joe should act and speak around his students. In fact, much of his dialogue was taken almost verbatim from Batiste. The result is a much more endearing and sympathetic character the audience can really root for.
The piano is the cornerstone of many musical ensembles, and it is Joe Gardner’s instrument of choice. Joe is charismatically voiced by actor Jamie Foxx. But this wasn’t Foxx’s first portrayal of a jazz pianist. He played the part of music legend Ray Charles in the 2004 film Ray. These are good choices for an actor who is also a musician in his own right.
While we are talking about the piano, let’s watch Joe tickle those ivories. When he is playing the piano, his movements and habits are duplicated from those of Batiste, right down to certain finger gestures and ticks that help with the performance.
Jazz Music and Culture
Jazz has long been considered a melting pot of music. With roots in blues and ragtime, the genre began in African-American communities of New Orleans. But as jazz has spread around the world, it has drawn on national, regional, and local musical cultures, which in turn have given rise to different styles.
Mid-century New York-style jazz is what we hear most in the New York City scenes in Soul. Much like jazz itself, Soul drew on multiple influences in crafting music for the film. Jon Batiste – mentioned above – is something of a modern jazz legend himself, having recorded and performed with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, and many others. Batiste was also bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from 2015 to 2022.
In stark contrast, the instrumental music permeating “The Great Before” and “The Great Beyond” was written and composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – best known for their industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails and other industrial metal sounds.
While the combination of jazz and alternative metal influence may sound jarring, the musical score for Soul worked to perfection. It became the thirteen musical score (and only the fourth from an animated film) to win a Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Award for Best Original Score. The other animated films to win all three of these awards include Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and Up (2009).
As for the place where Joe got his big chance? The Half-Note Jazz Club is where it’s at. It was modeled after New York’s famous jazz clubs – most notably the Village Vanguard – from the famous red awning out front to the steep interior stairway lined with photos of the jazz greats that have played there. The Half-Note just exudes that legendary New York jazz energy.
Throughout Soul, Joe’s single-most focused goal is to play for the film’s jazz legend Dorothea Williams, as part of her quartet. Williams is great with a saxophone, and she knows it. But Joe manages to convince her to give him a chance, and he makes the most of his moment.
When you think of female jazz greats, names like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin may come to mind. But the character of Dorothea Williams wasn’t based on these larger-than-life legends. She was based on modern saxophonist, composer, and Berklee College of Music Professor Tia Fuller. Williams’ physical features, and to a certain degree her musical artistry, is derived from Fuller. As a performer, Fuller has toured with Beyoncé and Esperanza Spaulding. As a teacher, she works with youth to tap into their artistic strengths.
Actor Angela Bassett plays the role of Williams with a subtle brilliance. Much like Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, Bassett’s role as Williams wasn’t her first as a music legend. She had her acting breakthrough portraying singer Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), which won her a Golden Globe Award and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Disney fans may know Bassett’s previous roles as Queen Ramonda in the Black Panther films, as well as the voice of Mildred in the 2007 animated film Meet the Robinsons.
The Hall of Everything
According to Disney-Pixar production designer Steve Pilcher, the Hall of Everything is a collection of everything on Earth that inspires new souls in search of their spark. Says Pilcher, “We bleached the color in the Hall of Everything—where souls go to interact with possible interests. Everything there is recognizable, but there’s no color in it unless you interact with it.”
The Hall of Everything is chock full of Disney and Pixar Easter eggs. But with the intentional lack of color, it takes a sharp eye (and a finger ready on the “pause” button) to find some of these hidden nods. Here are a few to look out for.
“We Call It EPCOT”
It may be coincidental, but many of the monuments in the Hall correspond to the country pavilions in the EPCOT World Showcase, including a Japanese pagoda, London’s Big Ben, Paris’ Eiffel tower, a Mexican pyramid, an Inuit totem from Canada. If you look even more closely, you may catch a glimpse of Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle in the background.
One shot within the Hall of Everything shows a soul interacting with Luxo Jr., the famous little lamp from Pixar’s very first animated short. Look for it towards the rear-center of this image, near (appropriately enough) a piano.
In the same frame, towards the left and a little closer to the foreground, viewers may spy the Pizza Planet delivery truck. The truck was made famous in Toy Story, and has made cameo appearances in most Pixar films since.
You know that blue, yellow, and red ball that Luxo Jr. bounces on during the introduction to every Pixar film? That ball – more familiarly known as the “Pixar Ball” – can be seen (minus its signature colors) sitting in 22’s secret home just before she escorts Joe into the Hall of Everything.
Hidden Walt Disney
I saved my favorite Easter egg for last. At one point in the Great Before (humorously “rebranded” in the film as the “You Seminar”), Joe wears the identity tag of a mentor soul belonging to a man named Dr. Borgensson. When 22 takes him to Dr. Borgensson’s Hall of You, a statue is shown to have been erected for the famed psychologist.
Does this statue look familiar? For Disney Parks fans, the statue will immediately evoke the memory of Walt Disney himself. The statue depicts Borgensson pointing outward with his right arm, while he holds the hand of a child with his left hand. This pose is almost identical to the “Partners” statues found at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, where Walt Disney points down Main Street with his right hand while holding the hand of Mickey Mouse with his left.
Did you notice? Speaking of the You Seminar – if you read the film’s end credits, the section reserved for “Production Babies” is sweetly titled “Recent You Seminar Graduates.”
John Ratzenberger – Pixar’s “lucky charm” who voiced a character in every Pixar movie prior to Soul, is not credited with a voice role in this film. However, co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers confirmed that Ratzenberger is in the film, but without a vocal performance. His likeness is used for a character briefly seen walking in a subway station.
In a scene where Joe is running through the subway, after going through the turnstiles, he runs into/past a man wearing white business shirt and red tie, who turns and watches him. This character was confirmed to be a likeness created of John Ratzenberger, to keep his streak of continued Pixar appearances alive.
Why isn’t Ratzenberger’s voice in Soul (or subsequent Pixar films like Luca, Turning Red, Lightyear, and Elemental)? Docter did not offer a definitve reason, but instead simply stated that they wanted to go in a different direction with Ratzenberger’s involvement, rather than simply another voice role.
The Big Screen Treatment
Disney-Pixar’s Soul is finally receiving the theater experience it deserves with its January 12, 2024 release. Will you be visiting your local movie theater to experience Soul as it was meant to be seen? If you want to catch a glimpse of some of the many Disney and Pixar nods tucked into the film, you’ll do well to see it on a much bigger screen!
The 2021 film Luca and 2022 film Turning Red will get their theater debuts in the coming months as well, so stay tuned for more Five(ish) Fun Facts pieces to celebrate those two films.
As usual, my five fun facts ended up spilling over into quite a few more. I hope you enjoyed this musical jam. Let me know what you think of Soul, by joining the conversation on social: Instagram Facebook X (formerly Twitter)