Disney/Pixar’s Soul, which recently won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher yearning for his big break into the New York jazz scene. Music, particularly the unique sounds and rhythms of jazz, serves as the main inspiration for Joe and propels the story forward. The filmmaking team behind Soul settled on jazz as Joe’s deep passion, something that would drive his quest for the rest of the film. Their jazz-influenced score, coupled with more ethereal work required for the otherworldly scenes of the film, also received a Golden Globe for Best Original Score.
It’s a validation of the filmmakers’ belief that jazz fundamentals are really all about what they were trying to say through the film.
“We realized that jazz was really the perfect representation of what we were trying to say in the film,” director Pete Docter explained. “Don’t judge. Take what you’re given. Turn it into something of value.”
Through that realization, Joe Gardner became a jazz musician whose talents equaled his passion.
To create the abundance of jazz music required for the film, Docter and team partnered with The Daily Show pianist Jon Batiste. Batiste proved an invaluable resource to the film, not only in terms of composing an original jazz score but also in providing both the appropriate cultural context for jazz and a hands-on model for the animators to create Joe Gardner’s skill.
Once he explored the concepts developed within the film, Batiste found that the jazz music in Soul bounced between optimistic and the melancholy tones. That balance is epitomized by lead characters Joe (Jamie Foxx) and 22 (Tina Fey).
“This film has a lot of light in it. It’s a lot of light and life force energy, I like to call it, and that was really the beginning of me figuring out my way into the music, the jazz music, in the film, finding the tone, the spiritual tone,” Batiste shared. “I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal, accessible form with melodies and harmonies that had that same spirit. There’s an optimism in [the chords], and it’s also a bit melancholy at the same time. There’s ways that you can modulate and change the key, and it just hits you right here.”
But jazz isn’t the only source of music in the film.
Soul essentially straddles two worlds: the world of New York City, filled with lush jazz music, and the world of The Great Before, an in-between place in which Joe briefly lands. The Great Before required a different sound, so the filmmaking team looked to Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). The filmmaking team found their unique, otherworldly sounds a perfect match for the material.
Reznor and Ross’s work on Soul marks their first score for an animated film, but the composing duo found the experience did not differ dramatically from their work on live action films.
“Our first step is always to listen and really try to understand where the filmmakers are coming from: what they’re seeing, what they’re imagining,” explained Reznor. “We spent a lot of time discussing how you’re supposed to feel when you’re first exposed to the Soul world. Then we went back to our studio, which is filled with a variety of real, imagined and synthetic instruments, and spent the first chunk of time experimenting with different arrangements and different instruments and seeing what felt emotionally right to create the fabric of this world.”
Reznor and Ross provided each realm within The Great Before with a unique sound or, as Reznor says, “its own identity.” They relied on synthesizers but used them as traditional instruments. As Reznor explains, the duo multitrack recorded the synthesizers as they would with a traditional orchestra. Their process helped create a sense of warmth and organic tones.
Fortunately, their functionally different approach to the score did not clash with Batiste’s more traditional approach to the jazz score. In fact, Batiste found the unique scores strangely complimented each other in the final mix.
“Even if you don’t know how to describe it, [the music] puts you in a space throughout the whole film. It really complements what Trent and Atticus came up with, and when our music comes together, when the worlds collide, it’s amazing how it worked out,” Batiste marveled. “At first, we didn’t even hear each other’s music. As the process started to go along, I got a chance to hear some of the music they were making, they heard some of the music that I was making, and we came together in this one moment. It really changed the rest of the music that I was composing for the film because I got a chance to see into their process, and that also leaked into the kind of spiritual tone that I’m talking about, this ethos that we created.”
Soul is now streaming on Disney+.