Pixar’s Soul: Jamie Foxx, Pete Docter on bringing jazz to the film

Courtesy of Disney

Soul is the latest film from Disney and Pixar, and it’s debuting exclusively on Disney+. Unlike Mulan, which premiered as a premium film on the streaming service, Soul is premiering to all Disney+ subscribers. The film follows Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe, a music teacher who yearns to become a member of a jazz band. However, his dream comes to an end when he falls down a manhole, and now he will need to help out an infant soul in order to come back to life.

The film originally didn’t set out to follow a black jazz musician, and director Pete Docter (Up, Monster’s Inc) reveals how the movie ended up with the protagonist it has now.

“At the very beginning, it was a very personal story of trying to figure this out,” Docter said during the virtual press conference. “What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? And so I wanted to take people on this artist’s journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting. We played around, for a little while, with an actor or scientist, but as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous. You do it because you love it. And you have a passion for it.”

“And it’s fascinating to watch,” he continued. “When you see somebody play, they’re just amazing. It’s like a magic trick. As soon as we hit on that, one of our consultants called jazz black improvisational music. And we realized, ‘Oh, we have to make this character black. He has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form.'”

Kemp Powers is known for writing the play, One Night in Miami, a fictional account of a real night involving Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cook, and Jim Brown. It’s being adapted into an Amazon film with Regina King (HBO’s Watchmen) as the director. He serves as the co-director and writer for Soul.

“When Dana [Murray] and Pete first approached me to become involved in the film, the first thing I asked was, ‘What work of mine have you read?'” Powers recounts his first meeting with the film’s director and producer. “And they had actually read a play of mine that I wrote called One Night in Miami. So, I was like, ‘Okay, so, you know what you’re getting into. You know my politics. You know that I’m going to be pushing for a lot of black stuff because I can’t help myself.’ I think our culture is amazing. And a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, will tell you that in order to appeal to a wide audience, you want to get away from that. And I feel the opposite. I feel, like, there is universality by going for hyper specificity. My number one defense is, ‘Do you not enjoy Sopranos and The Godfather if you’re not Italian? That sounds absurd, right?'”

“It’s specific to a very unique culture,” he continued. “And I feel like this was a wonderful opportunity to both do something that my family, that my kids and my mom and all my relatives could be proud of but something that everyone could enjoy and just show how the black-American experience and our humanity is as universal as anyone else’s experience.”

Powers shares one story of how he added something he thought was important for the film, and that’s getting a haircut.

“It really did start with that conversation with Pete,” Powers said. “I remember Joe getting a suit was a plot point. And I said to Pete, ‘He also needs a haircut, right?’ And someone said, ‘Well, the haircut isn’t as important as the suit.’ And I was like, ‘I wouldn’t have even come up just to Pixar for the interview if I couldn’t have got lined up. So, I’m going to disagree and say that the haircut is every bit as important as the threads. And I love that Jon Batiste actually backed me on that because in talking about what makes a person successful in jazz, [he] said, ‘It’s not just the talent; it’s the complete package.'”

Joe is a character who loves jazz music, and Foxx was inspired by different artists.

“There are so many different musicians from Thelonious Monk to Batiste himself,” Foxx said. “I mean, I always revert back to Ray Charles and meeting him and his vast knowledge of music. And cats that you may not even know that didn’t make it.”

“They didn’t even realize that they could probably go play somewhere and actually get paid for it,” he continued. “But that’s what you listen to
when you vibe out to it.”

Soul is now available on Disney+.

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