Pixar’s latest film Soul, opens to the sound of a Queens, New York, middle school’s band class, led by Joe Gardner, a middle-aged, aspiring jazz musician. As someone who played the trumpet in my Queens middle school’s band, the discordant, yet earnest attempt at music immediately transported me back to Mr. Stier’s classroom in I.S. 109, circa 1992. Just as in Joe’s class, the walls of Mr. Stier’s room were covered with jazz posters; he wore a ponytail and, by my memory, he also had an earring.
It never once occurred to me or probably to any of my pubescent classmates that Mr. Steir might not have chosen teaching middle school band as his first career — or that pursuing a creative passion like music or writing might require back-up plans and day jobs and a reordering of what success and a good life look like.
Now as a writer approaching middle age myself, it’s something I think about all the time. And after watching Soul, it seems it’s also something the film’s director Pete Docter has been thinking about. Docter, who has attended a Presbyterian church for years, drew heavily on James Martin SJ’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life for his inspiration. During a recent conversation about the film, Docter told me, “The movie and faith, I think, is about looking at how we're meant to live — now, right now, today — and change our attitudes and our perceptions, not only of ourselves, but of the world ... it’s an investigation into what life is all about.”
The investigation that Soul invites its viewers to undertake spans the aforementioned school in Queens and other parts of Joe’s everyday life like his mother’s tailor shop, a barbershop, a jazz club in Manhattan, the 7 train, as well as the otherworldly like the moving sidewalk to the Great Beyond (the afterlife) and the Great Before. Viewers become immersed in these places through sight and sound. If we’re meant to consider what life is all about, we’re given a lot of rich material to ponder.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read on, but be warned some spoilers lie ahead.
Soul opens with Joe (voiced by Jaime Foxx) teaching his middle school band class. It’s clear that he has other aspirations and when he’s offered a full-time job (with benefits and a pension), he is conflicted. If he takes this job, does that mean his dream of becoming a jazz musician is over? That same afternoon, a former student invites Joe to play piano that night for a famous jazz saxophonist. He gets the gig — and then falls down a manhole and finds himself on the moving sidewalk to the Great Beyond. Joe is terrified. He revealingly exclaims “I’m not dying today, not when my life just started” and runs away.
Joe somehow makes his way to the Great Before, where souls are given their personalities, quirks, and a spark of life at the “You Seminar.” Overseen by The Counsellors — all named Jerry — the Great Before is like a summer camp for new human souls. Joe sees a way for him to return to Earth by mentoring one of these new souls. Unfortunately, he’s assigned to Soul 22, voiced by Tina Fey. 22 has been mentored by luminaries like Archimedes, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, but has never been able to find the “spark” she needs to graduate. According to 22, Earth is just not worth the trouble.
And is it? Is being in constant pursuit how we’re meant to live? At first, it seems that Soul wants us to imagine that it’s this spark or passion of life that drives us, that makes us human. After all, it’s what’s driven Joe. And it’s what 22 needs to find in order to leave the You Seminar and exist on Earth.
But by introducing another otherworldly space, Soul cleverly turns that cultural trope on its head by showing us the dark side of living only in pursuit of that spark. When I asked Docter about these scenes, he said, “it was kind of initially trying to look at the shadow side of Joe. Joe, like me, he feels like he was born to do this. He's a musician. He loves that he's passionate about it. He's been chasing this dream. And the shadow side of that I think is that you can become ... so obsessed by it that it closes you off to other people.”
During this season, Christians around the world celebrate not a soul, but God, coming to Earth. According to that God, Earth and its inhabitants are worth quite a bit of trouble. This God opens up the Divine to people, welcomes them in, with all their potential for betrayal, denial, and rejection. This God doesn’t pursue a spark, but people, and calls those of us who follow him to live that way too.
I’ll never know for sure if Mr. Stier secretly harbored dashed dreams of making it as a musician. What I do know is that even now, 28 years after I first stepped into his classroom, I can see him so clearly. I can still remember the feeling and excitement of discovering the wonder of learning to play music well. His passion for music connected me, and probably so many others, to life in a new way. And isn’t that what living a good life is all about?