‘Soul,’ The imaginative ‘big before’ of our lives


Diego Fares SJ / Film & TV / Published Date:9 April 2021/Last Updated Date:15 April 2021

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The movie Soul comes from Pixar Animation Studios (a subsidiary of Walt Disney Pictures) and was directed by Pete Docter[1] and Kemp Powers. “The film was set to be theatrically released in November 2020, but due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic it was released to stream on Disney+ on December 25, 2020.”[2]  It had made its Italian debut on October 15, as the opening film of the 15th Rome Film Festival.

Jazz as a character

Let us start as the movie suggests by immersing ourselves in its music as in an ocean. The opening credits do not begin with the grand orchestration that Disney usually uses, but rather with an off-key, drawling melody that we quickly discover comes from the band of the school where Joe Gardner teaches. The pupils play without enthusiasm, but everything suddenly changes when Connie, a sweet little girl who plays the trombone at full blast, gets carried away in a solo and leaves everyone stunned.

La Civilta Cattolica

Some of the kids laugh, and that’s when Joe makes them “feel” the story of his own vocation for jazz by playing beautifully on the school’s worn-out piano. “The jazz itself is almost like another character in the film,” says co-director Kemp Power.[3] The music is by Jon Batiste who lends his long fingers to the animated scenes in which Joe plays the piano.[4]

Pixar’s trailer is not just the usual montage of scenes from the movie, but a short film in its own right, in which we see new aspects of the characters as they animate Batiste’s song It’s all right.[5] Speaking of which, Jamie Foxx (Joe) and Tina Fey (22) star in their own right with their voices. Seeing them recording scenes under the director’s oversight, we understand that this is a real interpretation.[6] The animation achieves an extraordinary effect: with their voices alone, the protagonists transmit their spirit to the characters, who, thanks to their technique, can project their expressions and amplify their feelings, obtaining considerable success for cinema, close to painting and music.

The Unknown Great Beyond

Producer Dana Murray said the story would take viewers “into a world where no one has set foot for a long time”: The Great Beyond. In fact, all that is shown of that dimension is a sidewalk, or escalator, like those found in airports, which ascends to a great light in which souls are lost, swallowed up with a sizzling sound (Joe, as soon as he can, escapes from this light); but, alongside it, other dimensions open up. A very singular one is the Zone, where lost souls end up, and also, for limited periods, inspired ones: artists, sportsmen and women, scientists, etc., enthusiasts who have a “purpose,” or rather, an obsession with which they identify.

And the most original dimension is the “Great Before,” which, according to one of the “Counselor Jerrys” – the characters who gently guide everything that happens in the universe –  has recently been rebranded the “You-Seminar.”

The Great Before as ‘You-Seminar’

In our opinion, that of the Great Before is the most powerful and original metaphor of Soul. This is confirmed by an interview the director gave to journalist Sergio Burstein.[7] The latter comments: “One of the most fascinating concepts in the plot of Soul is the Great Beyond, the place where Joe lands after an accident. It is inhabited by souls preparing to enter into newborn human beings, an unprecedented creative circumstance that, unusually, avoids confronting the more institutionalized spiritual beliefs.”

Burstein here mixes the Great Beyond and the Great Before, but in describing the Great Before in more detail, he grasps its meaning. In fact, the Great Beyond in the film makes only a brief appearance. Docter explains the genesis of his original idea this way: “As soon as I talked about it, a lot of people told me it sounded great, but they wondered how I was going to avoid offending half the world’s religions. We asked a lot of people to give us suggestions not only on things we should avoid, but also on things we could include. Fortunately, none of the major religions that I can think of contemplate such a concept, with the possible exception of the Mormons, who assume there is something that happens before we are born, but resolve it differently. So we realized we could express our ideas freely and without problems.”[8]

Sympathetic and entertaining narration

In its narrative development, the idea of the Great Before proves fascinating. Without pretending to develop a philosophy of the concept, let me outline why, so that we can all savor the power of this metaphor presented enchantingly and sympathetically in Soul.

This Great Before, to which the film gives a weight not found in the great religions, is not treated in an ideological way, but existentially. Docter states: “The thing that attracted me the most about this concept was that it connected to the great philosophical questions that we ask ourselves about how and why we live and if there is a specific reason to do so, as opposed to those who say that nothing makes sense and take the path of nihilism. But we have tried to propose it in a way that would be fun and relevant to the characters.”[9]

As an idea, the Great Before offsets that of the Great Beyond. Those who see and appreciate the space in the film given to the Great Before cannot help but think that the Great Beyond, as an object of metaphysical and theological speculation, is overrated, and this unbalances any subsequent reflection. Usually, we project our own heavens, hells and purgatories into that Great Beyond, without having any experimental data about it. Instead, the Great Before has the advantage of being able to be imagined and thought of from the concrete data of our real life, of our existence.

‘Quantified counselors’ and mentors

The Great Before of the film is the dimension in which souls shape their personalities by participating in the “You-Seminar” before descending to Earth. They are guided by Counselor Jerrys, advisors who are both one and many. They call themselves, as one of them asserts, “the  coming together of all quantized fields of the universe.”[10] Their appearance, elaborated with just a few strokes, makes them look as if they came from the hand of Cavandoli in the cartoon La Linea,[11] but also refers back to the paintings of Picasso, Miró and Mondrian (the last is alluded to in a poster on the subway stairs). The Counselors form the personalities with the help of the “Mentors,” real people who have already lived and who guide each soul to the encounter with its own spark and with the purpose it will have in life.

Among the “quantized processes,” who are beings, and the mentors, who are souls of real historical people, an interesting dialectic is triggered. Joe just wants to return to his body on Earth to go to the concert where he will play with Dorothea Williams (to whom Angela Bassett lends her suggestive voice), but the Counselors assign him the task of mentoring 22.

22 is the central character of The Great Before. The director explained that she was originally supposed to be called 107,337,217,322 (order number of creation from the beginning of human history), but in the end she was left with only 22 as her name, with the intention of giving the impression that she belonged almost to the origin of life and that, in a world where there are so many people who do not want to die, 22 is one who does not want to be born. She had very famous mentors, such as Gandhi, Lincoln, Mother Teresa (she made her cry!), Muhammad Ali, Newton…, and none of them has yet managed to make her passionate about anything.

Spark and purpose

How do you explain a “spark,” a charisma, how do you explain a vocation, a purpose, a personality, the love we have for life, our passion for values and beautiful things? We are alive. This is a reality. This is the simple gimmick to explain how each of us came to be who we are, how our personalities are (pre)formed and how much gratitude we owe to those who have guided us. It is a very engaging approach.

In this sense there is an interesting distinction that Soul makes between the spark and the purpose. The latter can become an obsession and cause people to detach themselves from their bodies. The spark, on the other hand, can be found in the small things in life to which each person attaches great value. 22 discovers this when, in the quiet, bright evening, a small propellor seed falls into her hand, making her get in touch with all of nature and her whole story. The spark leads her to the joy of living.

Before they are ready to go to Earth, souls must take a series of steps that are marked on a sort of circular badge worn on the chest, a summary of the steps completed in the personalization process. The last box is filled when each soul discovers his or her own spark, and this is exactly what 22, in her long history, has never been able to do. When at one point, after Joe has unsuccessfully tried to inspire her, they find themselves looking down on Earth and the hospital where Joe is in a coma, they fall into it. Unfortunately, Joe finds himself embodied in a cat that had been placed on his legs, while 22 ended up in the man’s body. Joe-cat tries to teach 22-Joe the actions necessary to play that same night at Dorothea’s concert. In the meantime, they pass by a barbershop, and during the day share a number of other experiences of the beautiful little things in life, like eating a pizza, hearing a busker on the subway, and then during the beautiful fall evening comes the touch of a propellor seed that, fluttering like a butterfly, lands in 22-Joe’s hands.

However, Terry, the accountant of the Great Beyond, has noticed that a soul is missing, Joe’s, and sets out to find it. He finds them and leads Joe and 22 into a trap and brings them back to the Great Before. While the Counselors are berating them for escaping to Earth, they suddenly realize that 22 has completed her badge with the spark. It is unclear how this was possible, but Joe angrily states that it happened because she took over his life by entering his body and living in his place. In conclusion, 22 is allowed to return to Earth, while Joe must go to the Great Beyond. They are given a moment to say goodbye and have one last discussion, in which Joe, bitterly, wishes her well with the life she will now live thanks to her having been in his body, and makes to leave. Without saying a word, 22 throws her badge at him and disappears. At this point the following dialogue takes place between a Counselor and Joe. Here’s the script:

“Jerry B: You should probably get going to the Great Beyond.

The Counselor turns to walk away. Joe stops him:

Joe: Hey, we never found out what 22’s purpose was.

Jerry B: Excuse me?

Joe: You know, her Spark. Her purpose. Was it music? Biology? Walking?

Jerry B: We don’t assign purposes. Where did you get that idea?

Joe: Because I have piano. It’s what I was born to do. That’s my Spark.

Jerry B: A Spark isn’t a soul’s purpose.

The Counselor walks off, chuckling:

Jerry B: Oh, you mentors and your passions! Your purposes! Your meanings of life! So basic.

Joe is confused.

Joe: No… No!

He walks to the edge of the Earth Portal, watching the other new souls jump to Earth.

Joe: It is music. My Spark is music. I know it is!

Determined, Joe jumps down into the portal to Earth.”[12]

So it is that Joe returns to Earth using 22’s pass and manages to attend the desired concert, playing in Dorothea’s band. Although it was a success, he eventually confesses to Dorothea that he feels an unexpected emptiness. She tells him the story of the fish who asks an older fish where he can find the ocean. The older fish replies, “The ocean? That’s what you’re in now, right now.” And the young fish replies: “This? This is water, what I want is the ocean.”

Dorothea’s story closely resembles the most famous speech of David Foster Wallace, a well-known American writer, author of a monologue entitled This is Water.[13]

Wallace’s account sounds like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Wallace, urging students to have full lives, explained, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

That’s what happens to Joe. At one point, when he contemplates those simple things 22 left behind, he regrets leaving her and using her pass. He returns to the Great Before through the Zone, going into a trance while playing the piano. Here he learns that poor 22 has turned into a lost soul, prey to monsters and regrets that plague her because she has no purpose in life.

Joe finds her and tries to convince her that she is ready to live. But 22, furious, attacks Joe and devours him in her own dark envelopment. Inside, as a last resort, the musician places in her hand the propellor seed that had so moved her on Earth. When 22 recognizes it, all her traumas and complexes dissolve. Joe accompanies her to the Earth Portal. Then, resigned, he turns back to head toward the Great Beyond.

The concluding dialogue between Joe and 22 is compassionate:

“Joe: Your Spark isn’t your purpose. That last box fills in when you’re ready to come live.

He shows her the memory of the day spent together. 22 looks around and assimilates the genuine, beautiful moments that are happening on Earth.

Joe: And the thing is…. you’re pretty great at jazzing.

22 smiles at Joe. The black dust surrounding the Lost Soul melts away.

Joe finds the Earth Pass and places it on 22. 22 smiles, but then realizes:

22: But Joe… This means you won’t get to…

Joe: It’s okay. I already did. Now it’s your turn.

Joe motions to the Earth below. 22 steps closer to the edge, but gets cold feet and darts behind Joe.

Joe: I’ll go with you.

22: You know you can’t do that.

Joe: I know. But I’ll go as far as I can.

22 steps closer to the edge. Joe holds out his hand. 22 takes it and holds tight as they both jump. […]

Joe opens his eyes to find he is on the slidewalk, heading toward the Great Beyond. He smiles, at peace. Ready. Until:

Jerry: Joe Gardner?

Joe turns to see a Counselor on the slidewalk with him. Joe: Yes?

Jerry: Do you have a moment?

Joe walks over to Jerry.

Jerry: I think I’m speaking for all the Jerrys when I say: thank you.

Joe: For what?

Jerry: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired.

Joe: Oh, really?

Jerry: So, we all decided to give you another chance.

The Counselor opens a portal. On the other side is Earth.”[14]

An open ending

The Counselors, inspired by Joe’s conduct – the very ones who usually inspire others – have decided to give him a new opportunity, and so he returns to Earth. He returns knowing that his purpose, which was music, is not his spark: the spark is his will to live, and from now on he will live his life, every single moment.

Docter summed up the crew’s opinions on Soul’s conclusion: “Yes, there were different positions. I think, in fact, some saw allowing Joe to return to be a sort of trick. But in the logic of the story, you can’t teach someone to enjoy life properly and then rob them of that chance. In short, it just didn’t seem like the right way to go. Even though in the initial script it went differently.”

According to some of the crew, this ending open to a second existential opportunity was preferred among several that had been outlined, to convey a positive feeling in a difficult year.

In the other version, Joe remained dead and did not return to his body: instead he went to be a mentor in the “You-Seminary.” “He remained in the Great Before, proving to be the best mentor of all time, able to introduce new ideas and revolutionize the seminary.”[15] There was also an “earthly” version of this ending. In it Joe, having discovered his calling as a mentor, chose to return to being a school bandleader and not a jazz musician in the quartet.

The open ending invites us to enjoy life existentially rather than seeing it as a mere purpose that can turn into an obsession, as shown in the film’s most striking scene, where Joe is devoured by 22 and suffers her obsessions firsthand. This is the opposite of what happened when 22 entered his body; now it is Joe who enters 22’s soul and sees his own obsession personified in a simulacrum of himself who is raging against 22, but is also taking it out on him: he projects all his rage at him and makes him lose his pass. It is at this point that, instead of the badge, he fishes out of his pocket the propellor seed he had brought with him, and with it dissolves his own phantom image and also 22’s obsessions, because it makes her remember how beautiful that night on Earth had been.

At the end a Jerry asks Joe what will become of his life, and he replies that he doesn’t know, but that he will live every moment of it. In this way the film avoids ideology and does not compare itself to any existential theory, but places us within life and invites us to enjoy it, to appreciate it as we did while watching the film.

After 15 minutes of end credits, acknowledgements and names of collaborators – including children born during production, who are called “Recent You Seminar Graduates” – and a dedication to “all the mentors in our lives,” Soul ends with a sort of scenic reversal from the usual beginning of Disney films and with Pixar’s lamp turning off. But at this point out of nowhere comes Counselor Terry, who, gruff as usual, takes over the screen and chases us away saying, “So! The movie’s over! Go home!” It’s a loving way of letting us know that the film has taken us into the Ocean of the Great Before and mentored us, helping each of us discover our own spark. Now we can return to the surface of the Earth, to live our lives more joyfully with the good taste Soul has left in our hearts.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 10, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.10

[1] Peter Hans Docter, born in Bloomington (Minnesota, USA) in 1968, is an animation genius: screenwriter, animator, producer and director. Among the films he has written is “Toy Story.” Among those he has directed is “Monsters & Co.” Nominated eight times for an Oscar, he won two for best animated film (“Up” and “Inside Out”). As of 2018, he is the creative director of Pixar in place of John Lasseter.

[2] See the entry “Soul” in Wikipedia, in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_(film). The Wikipedia page dedicated to Soul to which we refer for the data is exhaustive, a real pressbook.

[3] Music of Soul: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dURChpQr6MQ

[4] Jon Batiste (1986) formed the band Stay Human, which takes its name from the belief that human interaction during a live musical performance can elevate people immersed in the habits of modern society in order to “connect, disconnect.” The band produces improvised performances, referred to as “love disturbances,” on the street, which have attracted attention and enhanced the popularity of the band in the Big Apple.

[5] It can be seen and heard at www.youtube.com/watch?v=txdUE10OopA/. For the entire soundtrack, see “Disney Pixar’s Soul 2020 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Full Album [Jazz Music],” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXxRNlNM7oc

[6] Cf. “Soul – Behind the Scenes/Interviews”, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSKy5LwfJ88

[7] Cf. S. Burstein, “Los creadores de ‘Soul’ revelan detalles espirituales y técnicos de la nueva maravilla de Pixar”, in Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com/espanol/entretenimiento/articulo/2020-12-24/los-creadores-de-soul-revelan-detalles-espirituales-y-tecnicos-de-la-nueva-maravilla-de-pixar), December 24, 2020.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]   “I am the coming together of all quantized fields of the universe, appearing in a form your feeble human brain can comprehend” (Soul. Final script, p. 15, at: https://deadline.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/2020.07.17_Soul_Final_Script.pdf).

[11] This is a very famous animated series by Italian cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli (1920-2007). It develops in 90 episodes, broadcast on television by Rai between 1971 and 1986.

[12] Soul. Final script, op. cit.

[13] This is the speech that Wallace gave to the students of Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio) on May 21, 2005, on the occasion of a graduation ceremony. It appears, along with other texts, in a volume that took its name: This Is Water, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

[14] Soul. Final script, op. cit.

[15] “‘Soul’ tiene otro final muy deprimente que Disney reveló”, in Mediotiempo (www.mediotiempo.com/otros-mundos/cine/soul-tiene-otro-final-muy-deprimente-que-disney-revelo), Feb. 12, 2021.