Home > Reviews > SOUL – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste

SOUL – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been quite fascinating to observe the gradual tonal shift in Pixar’s movies over the years. Although their earliest entries – Toy Story in 1995, A Bug’s Life in 1998, Toy Story 2 in 1999 – contained their fair share of interesting adult and emotional themes in amongst the toy-and-bug based comedy and antics, in recent years the studio has become much more interested in exploring deeply existential themes of life and death. 2017’s Coco saw its Mexican protagonist journey to the fabled ‘land of the dead’ to seek a deceased family member, while Onward from earlier this year saw two alternate-reality fantasy elves trying to spend one more day with their deceased father. Pixar’s new film, Soul, may be the most ambitious one yet. It follows the story of Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher who dreams of being a jazz musician; after an accident on the way back from a gig audition Joe finds himself literally separated from his soul and on his way to the ‘great beyond’. However, when Joe rebels against his fate because he doesn’t believe he has achieved what he was destined to do, he instead finds himself acting as a mentor to a pre-born soul named 22 who has been unable and unwilling to find the ‘spark’ she needs in order to achieve life on Earth. The film is directed by Pete Docter and features the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, and Rachel House.

Many commentators have praised the film, both for its animation style, and for its intellectual depth. I mean, seriously, how many animated films feature a protagonist who travels to the realms of consciousness that exist before life and after death, and offers ruminations on fate and destiny, identity and personality, and free will and determinism, while hypothesizing that astral projection may be possible? While I certainly agree with the praise for the animation style, which is endlessly creative, and while I appreciate the ambitiousness of the screenplay, I personally found myself disagreeing with one of the core takeaways of the film – that a purpose is not necessary for a fulfilling life – while also not fully connecting with the characters in a way the filmmakers would have wanted. It’s good, at times bordering on very good, but it’s not the game-changing masterpiece that some critics have claimed.

One other aspect of the film that has come in for a great deal of praise is the music. Considering that Joe is a jazz musician, it stands to reason that there needed to be a large amount of jazz in the film, and for that they turned to the Grammy-winning jazz pianist and composer (and the current bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) Jon Batiste. His presence is everywhere in the earthbound portions of the film; his jazz compositions and arrangements follow Joe’s daily life in New York, and whenever we see Joe playing, it is actually Batiste’s hands we see, rotoscoped into animated life by the filmmakers.

However, when Joe ventures into the metaphysical world of souls and dreams, the producers decided that a completely different musical sound was required, and for that they turned to Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Reznor says “We spent a lot of time discussing how you’re supposed to feel when you’re first exposed to the Soul world. Then we went back to our studio, which is filled with a variety of real, imagined, and synthetic instruments, and spent the first chunk of time experimenting with different arrangements and different instruments and seeing what felt emotionally right to create the fabric of this world.” To this end, Reznor and Ross eventually responded with a quiet, ambient, twinkly score that comes across as a hybrid of 1980s keyboard electronica and slightly more contemporary new-age sounds, which have a spacey, abstract attitude.

All this is great, but I have two problems with the score as it stands. I appreciate Batiste’s jazz immensely as being authentic and technically masterful, but I really don’t enjoy listening to it. And, on the flip side, I actually quite liked Reznor and Ross’s dreamy score, but in the context of the film it leaves no virtually impression whatsoever.

To address Batiste’s jazz first, the first thing you notice that it is absolutely steeped in classic jazz, and features sparkling solos from the pianos, Eddie Barbash and Tia Fuller’s saxophones, Phil Kuehn and Linda May Han Oh’s stand-up basses, and the percussion of Marcus Gilmore, Roy Haynes, and Joe Saylor, many of whom are also in Batiste’s band Stay Human. It has that immediacy, spontaneousness, and sense of creativity that you often find in free jazz. “Born to Play” and its “Reprise” features some fascinating piano writing that puts the listener in the ‘zone,’ while “Bigger Than Us” has a languid lounge sound featuring a prominent sax melody.

“Collard Greens and Cornbread Strut” has an upbeat and positive vibe and features Batiste himself performing vocal scats over the instrumentals. “Joe’s Lowdown Blues” is smoky and sultry, with a moody main piano riff. “Apex Wedge” and “Celestial Spaces in Blue” both have a fun and funky mambo-salsa vibe, while both “Let Your Soul Glow” and “Feel Soul Good” feature more Batiste scatting over funky 1970s Harlem beats. “The Epic Conversationalist” sees the entire jazz ensemble riffing off each other, dancing around a multitude of different melodic ideas and textures, and notably reprising the melody that first appeared in the opening ‘Born to Play’ piece.

But the issue for me is that, despite me recognizing the artistic excellence and performance merit of these pieces, I have always found myself failing to connect with them in any meaningful emotional way. This sort of jazz always reminds me of the improvisational jazz that typified the work of people like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, the super-sophisticated stuff that true jazz aficionados adore, but which I have often derisively termed ‘squeaky jazz’. No matter how hard I try, I just don’t like it, and I’m just going to have to reconcile that it will never be to my taste. I absolutely agree that this music works in the film, as this is the music that Joe loves, and which inspired him to follow his dreams, but as a listening experience I doubt I will ever return to it.

As for the score by Reznor and Ross, my problem is the exact opposite. Having felt that their scores for The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and others, were fundamentally flawed and showed a complete misunderstanding of the nature of film music, I found their score for the period drama Mank from earlier this year to be an enormous step in the right direction, showing much more dramatic sensitivity and compositional range. Similarly, Soul – although it’s certainly a very different beast from anything they did with Nine Inch Nails – maintains a superior sense of dramatic application than anything they had written prior to Mank, although it is perhaps a little more within their established comfort zone.

On album, the score is at times really lovely. Most of it is little more than a series of shimmering, iridescent electronic tones, but there is a calming, soothing quality to it that gives it an appeal that is hard to quantify. At times the score has a tonal quality similar to Thomas Newman, which makes me wonder whether parts of it were temp-tracked with Finding Nemo or Wall*E; elsewhere it sounds like the early bleeps and bloops from a classic 8-bit computer or arcade game. It’s certainly quite surprising for something by Reznor and Ross to be this pleasant; it’s a far cry from the dark, menacing electronic tones that dominated their work on David Fincher’s thrillers, and often feels quite child-like and inquisitive.

Several cues leave a positive impression. “Falling” has some interesting scale work coupled with the more insistent, old fashioned computer game sound. “The Great Before/U Seminar” features ethereal voices and bubbling, quirky rhythmic ideas. “Jump to Earth” is very heavy on the classic Nintendo sound, and is built around a fun and lively central melody. “Terry Time” features a sneaky, slightly insidious woodwind motif for the great beyond’s ‘accountant’ who goes looking for Joe when they determine that the soul count is off; this motif appears later in “Terry Time Too” and in the second half of “Pursuit/Terry’s World,” marking it as one of the few times Reznor and Ross have written a recurring character-specific motif.

“Joe’s Life” has a sense of downcast mystery, and “Run/Astral Plane” is lively and peppy, while “Lost Soul” is a brief hit of intense darkness. There is a real sense of warmth to “Meditation/Return to Earth,” accomplished mainly by the use of a live piano to offset the synth atmospherics; this continues in the gently moving “22 Is Ready,” and reaches its peak in the really lovely “Epiphany,” which is perhaps the most dramatically poignant cue in the score. “Ship Chase” and “Escape/Inside 22” are the score’s action centerpieces, a pair of driving, percussive tracks with layers of urgent synth rhythms. “Earthbound” has a palpable sense of anticipation from its excitable piano/electronica rhythms, and the conclusive “Just Us” is a set of variations on the piano riffs, melodious and appealing.

The trouble, for me, is that the score in context sort of feels like nothing. The visual artistry on display in the three ‘ethereal’ settings of the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and the Zone, is so startlingly original and arresting, and so unlike most things that have been made before, that the music really needed to provide a strong emotional link between the audience and the film. Instead, the music is mixed very low, so that at times it comes across as flimsy and intangible, a bit wishy-washy and devoid of personality. It’s just sort of there, whispering and bleeping away in the background, not doing much, and certainly not doing anything to bridge the animation divide. The moments of high drama and pathos feel very under-served, so much so that their impact is actually lessened by having such soft music, and the film is worse as a result. I have always felt that scores for animation – especially animation which deals with the sort of abstract concepts that Soul does – need to be much more emotionally direct and obvious in order to connect with their audiences, and I don’t think that Reznor and Ross successfully did that at all. For all the pretty music on album, it never truly establishes itself when heard alongside its visuals, and that’s a problem.

The album for Soul is a three-pronged attack. There are two vinyl albums – the Soul Original Motion Picture Score album featuring Reznor and Ross’s original music, and a ‘Music from and Inspired by’ album featuring Jon Batiste’s jazz compositions, new arrangements of several classic jazz pieces (“Space Maker” by Walter Norris, “Cristo Redentor” by Duke Pearson, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” by Duke Ellington, and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck), two original songs by Cody Chesnutt and Daveed Diggs, and a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right” by Batiste and British soul singer Celeste Waite. Both albums are combined into a single digital release, which is the album being reviewed here. There is no physical CD release for any of the three soundtracks as of the time of writing.

This split is likely to have been done so that Reznor and Ross can be pushed by Disney for Oscar consideration, because having Reznor and Ross AND Batiste together would result in the score falling foul of the rule that prohibits the eligibility of scores ‘assembled from the work of one or more composers’. Because Reznor and Ross worked separately from Batiste, the music execs are very carefully and deliberately stating that Batiste did NOT write any score – he wrote original jazz compositions and arrangements – leaving Reznor and Ross to take the plaudits, and any potential silverware. This actually does a real disservice to Jon Batiste, as I feel it is his music that is actually much more integral to the success of the film, considering that it is that very thing that inspires Joe to do what he does. Film music politics in action.

So, in the end, Soul is a mixed bag. The original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross continues to showcase their development as film composers, and makes for a pleasantly soothing new-age album experience, but in film context I found it to be much too insubstantial to be successful. Meanwhile, the jazz compositions by Jon Batiste are brilliantly authentic, masterfully performed by virtuoso musicians, and form the beating heart cornerstone of the main character’s reason for existing – but I really dislike listening to them due to my personal taste aversion to experimental and improvisational free jazz. It’s a shame, because I really wanted to like both the film and the score much more than I did; ultimately, it failed to touch my soul in the way the artists intended.

Buy the Soul soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Born to Play * (2:00)
  • Born to Play Reprise * (0:50)
  • Bigger Than Us * (1:51)
  • Collard Greens and Cornbread Strut * (0:36)
  • The Great Beyond ** (2:45)
  • Falling ** (0:41)
  • The Great Before/U Seminar ** (3:19)
  • Jump to Earth ** (0:52)
  • Rappin Ced (written and performed by Daveed Diggs) (0:37)
  • Joe’s Lowdown Blues * (0:36)
  • Terry Time ** (1:14)
  • Joe’s Life ** (0:40)
  • Portal/The Hall of Everything ** (2:18)
  • Run/Astral Plane ** (1:44)
  • Lost Soul ** (0:29)
  • Meditation/Return to Earth ** (1:40)
  • 22’s Getaway * (0:58)
  • Apex Wedge * (0:49)
  • Let Your Soul Glow * (0:20)
  • Terry Time Too ** (3:00)
  • Feel Soul Good * (0:27)
  • Parting Ways (written and performed by Cody Chesnutt) (2:20)
  • Looking at Life * (1:31)
  • Fruit of the Vine * (0:43)
  • 22 Is Ready ** (1:25)
  • Pursuit/Terry’s World ** (1:42)
  • Betrayal ** (2:28)
  • Space Maker (written by Walter Norris, performed by Jon Batiste) (1:17)
  • Cristo Redentor (written by Duke Pearson, performed by Jon Batiste) (2:21)
  • The Epic Conversationalist/Born to Play * (1:26)
  • Celestial Spaces in Blue * (0:52)
  • Spiritual Connection * (1:13)
  • Lost ** (1:09)
  • Epiphany ** (3:48)
  • Ship Chase ** (1:40)
  • Escape/Inside 22 ** (2:32)
  • Flashback ** (1:33)
  • Earthbound ** (1:27)
  • Thank You ** (0:42)
  • Enjoy Every Minute ** (0:48)
  • It’s All Right (written by Curtis Mayfield, performed by Jon Batiste and Celeste) (2:50)
  • Just Us ** (2:42)

Tracks composed by Jon Batiste *
Tracks composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross **

Running Time: 64 minutes 15 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste. Jazz orchestrations by David Giuli. Featured musical soloists Jon Batiste, Eddie Barbash, Tia Fuller, Marcus Gilmore, Roy Haynes, Phil Kuehn, Linda May Han Oh and Joe Saylor. Recorded and mixed by Atticus Ross, Brendan Dekora, Tommy Simpson, Nick Chuba, Kyle Hoffmann and David Boucher. Edited by Sally Boldt. Album produced by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Snipes, Tom MacDougall and William Hutson.

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