Culture:

Soul

by Michael Young | May 21, 2021
7 min read

Movie poster for "Soul"
Source: Pixar Animated Studios

Editor’s Note: This Disney/Pixar Animation Studios film won the 2020 Oscar for Best Animated Feature and for the Best Original Score. It was also nominated for Best Sound. Available on Disney+ and Netflix DVD and to buy/rent ($19.99) on Apple TV+, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video

Demographers estimate more than 108 billion human beings have inhabited the earth since we became something recognizable as human. That number (it’s actually 108,210,121,415) figures in this movie and, I’m guessing, that will surprise you a bit. What does the number of human beings that have populated this planet have to do with a movie about jazz?

If you are as naive as I was, you will begin watching “Soul” with the notion that it has something to do with uniquely American musical genre of jazz and maybe its origins in our rich Black cultural history.  You will probably expect lots of references to New Orleans and Southern history and the oppression of slavery. Throw in quotes from jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, and what you’ll get is a good appreciation for the rich background and straightforward beauty of jazz. I was looking forward to that kind of experience, although I wasn’t quite sure how the creator of “Soul,” Pixar Animated Studios, was going to pull off the documentary I was envisioning in an animated feature.

If you are as unsuspecting of the true nature of this movie as I was, then you are in for a real surprise and, I think, an extremely pleasant one. “Soul” strikes amazingly thoughtful chords as it extends its exploration of jazz into the realm of the unknown and—yes—soulful. Once again, Pixar, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, has given us a nearly perfect work of art and an unforgettable viewing experience.

About half of the movie has to do with the musical form of jazz. The story centers on Joe (Jamie Foxx), a musician living not in New Orleans, but in New York. He has a job teaching middle school band students. However, being a teacher isn’t his real passion. Joe dreams of playing jazz piano in nightclubs. Early in the movie he gets a break, and it appears that his dreams are about to come true.

Except they don’t. As is the case with most of us, something happens to Joe that changes his life trajectory. And with that development, we end up in the other half of the movie: The Great Beyond, The Great Before and The Zone. The great pleasures of this movie are here—in domains that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Here we aren’t dealing with people, but rather their essence, their “souls.” This movie, quite literally, explores notions of where souls come from, where they go, and what, exactly, humans might do with their souls while they are alive. These questions aren’t trivialized; there is substantial food for thought here, or should I say nourishment of the soul!

The Great Beyond, as envisioned in the animated feature"Soul"
The great pleasures of this movie are its depiction of domains—The Great Beyond, The Great Before, The Zone—that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Source: Pixar Animated Studios

The film navigates back and forth between these two worlds with great finesse. Joe’s earthly province is rich in detail and visceral experiences. (One critic argued that this depiction of the New York urban scene is the best ever, at least in an animated feature.) This section of the movie features the terrific jazz music of Jon Batiste, an accomplished keyboardist, originally from Louisiana, but now ensconced in New York.

Joe is a Black man and, as such, represents the first time Pixar/Disney has attempted, realistically, to depict Black people in animated form. The animators, who skillfully portray Black skin textures and colors, have added several appealing new characters to Disney’s animation stable.

When Joe is in the “otherworld,” he is recognizably himself, but adopts a visage befitting a member of the “soul” community. It is pretty hard to quibble with his appearance—I mean, what exactly does a “soul” look like, anyway?  The animation in this section of the movie is simpler and executed in pastel colors or black and white, and why not? The richness here is not in the visual presentation, but in the strange concoction of processes that souls undergo as they transition from one stage to another.

The other distinguishing characteristic of the Great Beyond and Before is the accompanying soundtrack. Instead of Jon Batiste’s jazzy improvs, we get the electronic music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who received two Academy Award nominations for 2020’s Best Original Score for “Soul” and “Mank” and who won for “Soul”). The ethereal and cerebral tone of their work is so soothing that it is difficult to imagine a better choice to represent the otherworld.

The preparation of souls for their adventure on Earth is particularly interesting—especially when two souls end up in bodies they weren’t intended to occupy. In addition to Joe’s soul, there is also Soul 22 (Tina Fey), who has a wonderful line: “You can’t crush a soul here.  That’s what life on Earth is for.”

Since souls are numbered, imagine how long that Fey’s has been waiting for her “spark” to be matched with a body. When 22 and Joe finally do get to Earth, the resulting “switched identity” sequence goes on a bit too long, but is a key part of the film’s message, which I will leave to you to discover.

I’ve been a Pixar fan for many years now, and their annual release almost always ends up in my Top Four or Five movies of the year. I can’t emphasize enough that “animated feature” does not mean “kids” movie. I began to appreciate the difference about a decade ago when I watched “Up,” an animated feature that focused on an elderly man who has lost his wife and, through the magic of cartooning, manages to lift his house into the air and fly to South America for some adventures. Sure, the movie had some kid appeal, but it was also about how older folks deal with loneliness and mortality. (Although I’ve never been able to actually levitate my house and go on the road, I did buy an RV trailer a few years later. . . .)

Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative director and the person most responsible for the writing and directing of this movie, has been with the studio for years and also spearheaded the development of another seminally important animated feature, “Inside Out.” That film explored the role of emotions and especially the value of sadness as part of the human experience. While it was ostensibly a film for children, it resonated well with adults.

Another Pixar film in the same vein is “Coco,” which presented the Mexican culture in beautifully positive light. It also introduced the theme of death and the possibility of interacting with the deceased. My point is that animated films, especially many of those made by Pixar, are not vacuous Saturday-morning cartoons for children. Rather they delve into deep topics that are meant to challenge children and adults alike.

I loved “Soul,” and I heartily recommend it to all my adult friends. But I was curious about how a child might react to the movie. So I consulted my “child expert,” my granddaughter Annabelle. I asked her (via her Mom) what she thought the film was about. My eight-year-old grandchild responded that it was about “confidence and enjoying the little things in life.” She agreed that it was thematically similar to “Coco,” but with better music. As usual, she said more in a few short sentences then I said in this entire review.

I did find one flaw with “Soul.” While each of its worlds appropriately has its own visual and musical style and while the characters do transition as they move back and forth, I wanted to see more of a linkage between the two worlds. I think the relationship between the essence of jazz—the harmony found in spontaneity—and the essence of the humanity’s “spark” could have been illustrated more directly. (Maybe by more overtly sharing musical themes?!). That said, “Soul” still deserves 4.5 stars.

 

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“Riverwalk” Presentation/Input Session

Truth or Consequence's riverfront

Thursday, June 24, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
City Commission Chambers
405 W. Third Street, Truth or Consequences

This is the first opportunity for the public to be briefed and comment on on the “Riverwalk” Economic Feasibility Study, commissioned two summers ago from Wilson & Company, civil engineers, by the City of Truth or Consequences. Not to be confused with the community-led “Turtleback Trails” planning effort, which is focused exclusively on improving recreational access and amenities along the riverfront, the Riverwalk study aims to identify possible opportunities for commercial real estate development at Rotary Park, Ralph Edwards Park and a proposed “recreational hub” at the existing Highway 51 tube and paddle launch.

To prepare to provide thoughtful comment, you may view a first draft of a “concept map” of the three proposed development zones, obtained by the Sun via an Inspection of Public Records Act request, and learn more about both the Wilson & Company study and the Turtleback Trails project in the Sun’s indepth report on both planning efforts, “Healthier and Wealthier: The “Turtleback Trails” Vision of Green Riverfront Development.

 

 

Free T’ai Ch’i Chih classes in June

t'ai ch'i graphic

Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. sharp
Park next to municipal pool, Truth or Consequences

T’ai Ch’i Chih is a gentle, meditative movement. Classes of 35 to 40 minutes will improve body balance and quiet the mind. Each session will cover the opening moves, plus six to eight moves of the method (for 20 to 21 moves in total).

Volunteer class leader Carol Borsello has Medical Qigong Level II certification and 25 years of natural healing studies, including massage. Although she is not certified to teach TCC, she is eager to share her healthy hobby with others.

“Come try it out,” Borsello says. “Reinforce good balance and raise your energy level a notch or two!”

Tondo Rotondo: The Circle Show

Nolan Winkler's painting "World Without End, Amen"

June 12–August 15
Rio Bravo Fine Art Gallery, 110 N. Broadway
Truth or Consequences

Tondo (plural “tondi” or “tondos”) is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art. This exhibition features artists represented by Rio Bravo Fine Art, in conjunction with other guest artists from New Mexico and Puerto Rico, all of whom have created a variety of imaginative art using the circle as their starting point. There are paintings on circular canvases, sculptures that take the circle into the three-dimensional realm and photographs with a circular perspective. Illustrated here is Nolan Winkler’s “World Without End, Amen,” diameter 20 inches, one of the paintings in the exhibit.

The exhibition’s opening reception will take place on June 12, during Second Saturday Art Hop, from 6 to 9 p.m. Regular viewing hours are Wednesday through Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m.

 

 

HAVE YOU SEEN?

Foundation for Open Government determines T or C's fees to deliver requested electronic documents not allowed under state law

Truth or Consequences has recently begun to charge a fee of 25 cents per page to deliver electronic records requested under the Inspection of Public Records Act. FOG responded to a citizen request to determine the fee’s validity.

Reader Ron Fenn of Truth or Consequences commented: Thank you for informing on this important “right of the people” to know how our government is acting and spending our money.  Mr. Swingle needs to look at cutting costs (personnel) not penalizing residents to reduce the decades old budget deficits.

T or C still mum about problems with city’s water wells, despite only two of eight working properly

A legal ad in the Sierra County Sentinel’s May 21 edition was the first public notice and acknowledgment that two more wells in the city’s eight-well field are in trouble. Four others are offline, raising questions about the city’s water delivery capacity and the water department’s transparency about the health of the well field.

Reader William West of Truth or Consequences commented: If Wells 6 and 7 are leaking “liquid” or water with oil and metal filings, it seems possible, if not likely, we are drinking the same. If a property with a well is sold, the condition of the well water is part of the seller’s disclosure to the buyer. If T or C water is suspect, either because recent consumer confidence reports were not made public or there are capacity or quality problems with the water the city provides, should these concerns be a part of all property disclosures for sales in the city going forward?

It seems to me that fixing basic needs such as clean water, reliable electrical supply, effective stormwater handling and a transparent and aware city council should come before any consideration of “putting lipstick on a pig”-type projects such as the “Riverwalk.”

 

Wildlife trail or commercial development for Rotary Park?

Please, let us come together to prevent one more desecration. Please let us create, instead, a preserve for wildlife with access for people to the Rio Grande that will stand into the future to preserve the precious, irreplaceable quality of life that we are able to enjoy here.

Reader Patty Kearney of Truth or Consequences commented: Residing in the neighborhood between downtown and Rotary Park, I would not like to see commercial development at Rotary Park. There would be traffic in our residential streets. And the run-off from pavement and/or construction into the river seems environmentally unsound. I have no idea what sort of commercial development is proposed, but I can’t imagine it getting past an environmental impact study—which there ought to be, of course, for anything that goes in that location. I agree with Dr. Spruce. Wetlands restoration and a hiking trail. Investment in projects that make this town more its true self, not something it isn’t, will help us thrive

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