Soul (2020) is a film about life itself: how we should spend it and what counts as worthwhile. This film came out at the right time as we are trapped, confined and disturbed by our restless thoughts, contemplating our positions in life.
The answer Soul offers is underwhelming and even a bit clichéd at first sight- to “live every minute of it (life)”. But how? We may ask. Some would interpret it as paying attention to the tiniest details of life and feeling blessed, reminiscent of an accustomed form of nihilist aesthetics. Admittedly, the film does include this value but it is not the core. Soul is telling us not to lose ourselves to any form of obsession, even if it is what we define as our purpose of life. This film reminds us to live in our most natural state and “to live every minute of life” is only a result of such a state.
The two protagonists are Joe, a jazz lover who dies the day he gets a chance to perform in an important gig, and 22, an unborn soul. After Joe refuses to go to the Great Beyond, where souls of the dead stay, he by chance reaches the Great Before, the realm of unborn souls, and meets 22 there. Joe strives to return to his physical body and attend the gig. In contrast, 22 is an unborn soul, but possesses a sense of resistance to life on earth and has lived as a soul for a thousand years. Every new soul needs to find a “spark” to validate an Earth Pass for them to be born, but 22 can never find it because nothing yet has aroused her interest in life. The two protagonists make a deal that Joe would help 22 find the spark and in turn, 22 would give the Earth Pass to him. Because of irregular operations of some mystics in the realm of souls, Joe manages to return to the earth; but unfortunately, he returns as a cat while 22 occupies Joe’s body. This creative narrative frame brings about many possibilities in the movie and engages the audience to employ various perspectives.
Joe and 22 resonate with different people. Joe lives for Jazz and regards it as what he is destined for. He has no doubt that his spark was music. This oftentimes demonstrates the mindset when we consider devoting ourselves to a career that we hold feverish enthusiasm for- we enter a tunnel vision. On the other hand, 22 resembles part of us when we are a nihilist and become cynical about everything. She seems knowledgeable because she had conversations with countless masters in history including Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Carl Jung and so on. These role models in human history are invited by the counselors of the Great Before to be the mentors of unborn souls and guide them to find their spark. 22 knows about endless smart concepts and theories from them but she is still repelled by the idea of living. Her struggle may seem familiar to us - We, who may be students at a relatively early stage of life, are faced with rapid intellectual stimulation, but just suddenly become indifferent to so-called successful modes of life. When we envision ourselves only following the footsteps of the people ahead of us, life becomes dull and too predictable. Knowledge becomes our capital to mock at itself. We are intellectually trapped in our discontent about the status quo, both personal and societal. We become too impatient. This movie does not reveal the solution to this dilemma, but it indicates some clues.
In the film, when Joe’s and 22’s souls are mispositioned, their seemingly divergent perspectives begin to merge. It is in this scene that I find my favorite invention of this film- “jazzing”. When Joe faked to be 22’s mentor in the Great Before, he tried to make jazz the spark of 22 by saying that in jazz “the tune is just the excuse to bring out the you”. One day when 22 is walking on the street of New York in Joe’s body, she pleasantly exclaims that she is “jazzing”. 22 mixes up jazz and the idea of “bringing out one’s self” but she makes a wonderful creation. In the Great Before, she knew everything by theory, but she had no senses- she cannot smell, taste and touch as a soul. Living in Joe’s body enables her to feel, filling the void in her soul and creating a whole new sensual world. She embraces the physical environment- making music with the railings, greedily eating lollipops and enjoying the scene where leaves loosen in the breeze during sunset. It was once perplexing for 22 to understand Joe’s desire to linger in the human world and I believe now it has become clear. Jazzing, the sensual experience of life, releases her from the intellectual prison she has built for herself and allows full immersion in reality. For Joe, however, seeing 22 living in his own body almost feels like a meta-life. How many of us get to see how others would live our lives if they were us? But Joe has the chance. He gets to observe how an unborn, inexperienced soul would lead his life. I cannot forget how Joe’s eyes glimmer when 22 is indulging herself in the excitement brought by the sheer stimuli from the physical environment. His eyes were full of surprises and sometimes puzzlement, as if he is a stranger to his life or for the first time ever he discovers that there exist other important things apart from music. Therefore, the merging of perspectives can not only inspire the audience, but also the characters themselves.
However, the inspiration is temporary and the change of plot happens quickly. Before Joe could return to his body with the help of mystics and before he could make the gig, they were forced to return to the Great Before again. Joe was furious about 22 since right before the body exchange ritual, 22 ran away because she was growing confident that she could find her spark on earth. In the Great Before, 22 discovers her spark has been found because her Earth Pass is validated, but Joe complains that she would never have a spark if she didn’t live in his body. At the end, 22 still holds their promise and gives her Pass to Joe. After they part, 22 gradually turns into a lost soul which looks like a monster and by definition in the film, it represents people that “cannot just let go of their anxieties and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life”. 22 becomes lost in her obsessions of finding her connections to life, her spark. She thinks she’s not good enough to have a spark. There is an irony here since spark actually symbolises the state where one for the first time feels ready to devote themselves into life. Spark is not an assigned mission or purpose of life, as Joe and 22 understand; it’s simply the starting point of one’s enthusiasm about their life. This can also explain why the Earth Pass was validated after 22 came back from the earth. The wrong perception misleads not only 22 also Joe. Although Joe finally makes his perfect gig, he does not feel content as well. He once thought a perfect jazz performance would diminish all his previous failures in life, but after the momentary hype he could only feel emptiness and a sense of loss. Joe has forgotten the fact that life still carries on once the key moment has passed. I think it is the closest moment that Joe is similar to a lost soul.
Here it echoes the work of my favorite poet, Reina Maria Rilke. He once wrote:
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we would rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused. So, like children, we begin again to learn from the things, because they are in God’s heart; they have never left him. This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness.” (Love Poems to God 116-117)
The obsessions of the lost souls are like “knots of our own making”, so they “struggle, lonely and confused”. Both 22 and Joe suspend their life on too thin a string: finding a spark or making an exceptional performance; both of which are too weak to endure the “heaviness” of the two’s life. Many adults narrow their visions which at the same time limits their lives. Perhaps they should learn from children, who constantly renew themselves by learning from the whole world without imposing limits, both intellectually and physically. Although we cannot live like an unborn soul or always “begin again”, this child-like attitude opens us to flexible ways of perceiving life since this attitude values inspirations from all aspects of life- there lies solutions to our predicaments in every corner of the world. We have to believe that for the result we long for, “a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing”; “it will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them” (Rilke Letters 13). According to Rilke, “it is a lesson I learn every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!” (ibid)
I believe these life philosophies of Rilke are embedded in the word “jazzing”: to live your own version of life, to live naturally, to live in patience and in reconciliation. “Jazzing” is the way that prevents us from being lost and truly connects us with all the wonders in life. At the end of the film, when reminded about the time when Joe and 22 were wandering around the streets of New York, watching the leaves downraining in the sunset, the two disentangle their knots. I don’t think a leaf or the so-called beauty of nature can really rescue a person from a difficult life problem. But I do believe the state of “jazzing” beneath the butterfly-like yellow leaf offers tranquility, breaking the unnecessary prisons people have built for themselves and encouraging them to calmly embrace the grandeur of life itself.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated by Charlie Louth. Penguin Classics, 2016.
Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books, 2004.
Soul. Directed by Pete Docter, performances by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, and Daveed Diggs, Disney, 2020.