Modern Hollywood Discovers Its Jazz ‘Soul’

Modern Hollywood Discovers Its Jazz ‘Soul’

Modern Hollywood Discovers Its Jazz ‘Soul’

Pixar’s Christmas release is the best jazz film in a long time. But then, there isn’t a lot of competition.


The very first seconds of Pixar’s new feature Soul, the cue card of the Disney castle, offers some of the best jazz ever heard in a Hollywood movie. The famous theme “When You Wish Upon a Star,” is blared out in a raggedy fashion by a brass band, replete with noisy trumpets, squalling saxophones, and tailgate trombone. What? Is this a long-lost Charles Mingus tape? Or somebody equally hip?

When the Disney logo fades into the first scene, it turns out that the band is a distracted group of middle-schoolers who just don’t know how to play quite yet.

Jazz is a tough discipline, but something akin to amateurism is part of the secret sauce. Handed a simple big band chart by Count Basie or Duke Ellington, middle-school groups absolutely outdo polished college jazz ensembles. The college kids know how to play everything correctly at every moment, but they haven’t yet accessed a final stage. Professional jazz players have mastered a mysterious and discordant discipline, where they intentionally muss up a high-gloss finish. That’s why a middle-school band can sound so good: They are naturals at being imperfect.

We give that mysterious and discordant element various names. If the European fundamentals of harmony are being mussed up, it might be the “blues.” If the beat has disjunct yet sophisticated elements, it’s got some “groove.” A generic rubric might be “soul”—amusingly, a word that barely appears in the movie Soul until they kick Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right” for the closing credits.

The main plot of Soul, where two disparate formless characters learn life lessons on the way to becoming finished humans, mainly concerns “soul” in the sense of the animating life force. Of course, the word “soul” also has African American connotations—soul food, soul music—and the Pixar film embraces those aspects as well. The first protagonist of the movie is Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, a talented African American jazz pianist turned music teacher. The real-life composer in charge of the film’s soundtrack, Jon Batiste, was the model for Gardner. One of the writer/directors, Kemp Powers, is the first African American to join Pete Docter and Mike Kemp at the Pixar top table. It’s safe to say that Disney (a corporation that doesn’t exactly have a perfect track record on race: We could start with Song of the South from 1946) is catching up with the times.

The jazz scenes in Soul turn out to be simply terrific. The creative team interviewed famous names like Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington to get the dialogue right; when working on sketches for the fictional club the Half Note, the animators took a trip to the Village Vanguard. Batiste is the linchpin, a professional of soul who plays and directs music that is quite rough around the edges in exactly the right way. The animators lovingly reproduce those imperfections perfectly.

There’s jazz everywhere in the history of soundtrack music, but how much has Hollywood done with jazz as metaphor or motivating force for character? An excellent recent book by Kevin Whitehead, Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film, collates just over 100 examples, including movies directed by Howard Hawks (Ball of Fire), Otto Preminger (Man with a Golden Arm), John Cassavetes (Shadows), Martin Scorsese (New York, New York), Clint Eastwood (Bird), Spike Lee (Mo’ Better Blues), Francis Ford Coppola (The Cotton Club), Robert Altman (Kansas City), Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown), and Steven Spielberg (The Terminal).

Many of the movies included in Whitehead’s survey are not especially loved by serious jazz fans or musicians. Of course, painters don’t always love movies about painters and not all newspaper reporters love movies about newspaper reporters. When the topic is too close to home, a fictionalized story rarely satisfies. However, jazz may be particularly messy in how it colors outside the lines: art vs. entertainment, improvisation vs. composition, the steady drumbeat of racial politics: It’s all a bit hard to sum up on the back of the box. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, you don’t know.

Jazz movies tend to come in bunches, and Soul is the fourth high-profile example from the last six years. Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) were both directed by Damian Chazelle, and Green Book (2018) was directed by Peter Farrelly. The academy likes these movies—they all won major awards—but jazz musicians were horrified.

Whiplash is a sports movie. Sports movies by definition do not honor imperfection, and the cheesy score offers the worst kind of “perfectly played” college band sound. It’s also blindingly white in aesthetic, which might be fine if the plot didn’t concern jazz drums. All the very greatest jazz drummers have been African American, and the movie’s relentless erasure of African American musical values is a major faux pas. (In another couple of decades, Whiplash may be relegated to that same “let’s forget we did this” file where Song of the South currently resides.)

La La Land is a musical. Musicals by definition require cheerful choreography and unsophisticated melodies. This wonderful genre has a liminal place in serious American culture. For jazz, the standard tunes from musicals offer some of the best innocent source material: We still know certain songs from very old white-bread musicals simply because Miles Davis or John Coltrane injected them with soul. But musicals that are soulful to begin with are rare. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton works fine as a musical—but doesn’t satisfy serious hip-hop fans. The rhythmic profile and production qualities of most of the songs are just too basic. La La Land works as a musical, too—but the soundtrack could drive a serious jazz fan to drink.

Green Book was based on true-life events concerning Don Shirley, a sophisticated musician who worked between genres. There was a lot of controversy about this movie, and Shirley’s real life musical path disappeared in the discourse. Don Shirley was just about the least soulful pianist making jazz records in the 50s. Shirley’s ideals were firmly rooted in European concert music; he had little desire to muss up harmony or lay into the groove. This set of values gave him a unique sound, but that unique Shirley aesthetic proved to be rather obdurate source material for a story investigating 1960 American race relations from the vantage point of 2018. At the climax of Green Book, Shirley sits in with all–African American bar band and plays the blues. Could the real-life Shirley have done this? Maybe, but probably not. (Fortunately, the musician in charge of the score to Green Book, Kris Bowers, is another professional of soul, and gave that blues session the requisite attributes for success onscreen.)

In comparison with its three famous predecessors, Soul floats easily to the top when simply dealing with jazz. Indeed, the movie could have stayed with jazz a bit longer. When the Pixar film changes pace and goes to an ethereal realm, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take over the score, offering solid, if far more predictable, sounds. (There will be two soundtrack albums for the movie, one from Batiste and one from Reznor/Ross.) Gardner is joined by the second protagonist, 22—voiced by Tina Fey—and the movie continues in conventionally heartwarming Pixar fashion.

Green Book was sharply criticized for continuing the “white savior” trope; Soul does what it can to disentangle Joe Gardner from the “magical negro” trope by firmly centering him in the final frame.

There are a full 10 minutes of credits to Soul. About six minutes in, the musicians’ names go by in unheralded fashion, without even listing their instruments. The famous jazz star in the onscreen story is alto saxophonist Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett. Two alto players are listed in the credits, Eddie Barbash and Tia Fuller. I called both Barbash and Fuller; neither had seen the movie yet, so we couldn’t determine who did what for certain, but probably most of the glamorous night club scenes with Williams were done to Fuller’s tracks. Fuller told me the basic quartet was Batiste, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Gilmore’s granddad Roy Haynes—one of the greatest musicians in history, someone who invalidates the entirety of Whiplash with a single bass drum bomb—also played on the soundtrack.

Disney could have gone a step further in honoring the musicians who gave life to the characters onscreen, especially during a pandemic, when there are no gigs and every bit of onscreen love is a beautiful thing. I’ve asked around and nobody seems to know who played the amateurish (yet killing!) trombone cues for the precocious 12-year-old Connie. I plan to buy the Batiste soundtrack as a Christmas present for myself; presumably, that will give all the personnel. Still, I wish that somewhere in that 10-minute forest of Pixar credits it had said, “Connie’s trombone played by [insert name here].” That would have shown a little soul.

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