Two worlds of sound
Trent Reznor has had a remarkable career across multiple facets of the musical world, starting in high school and pursuing his passions from then on. With his position as a janitor and assistant engineer at a recording studio, he was able to get time recording some of his own demos in unused booths. He started Nine Inch Nails, has a long history of OST (original soundtrack) work in film and even some video games, and has mentored and/or played with some of music’s serious heavy-hitters. He and Atticus Ross, his Nine Inch Nails bandmate, bring a positively excellent style of synths and soundtracking to Soul‘s OST.
Jon Batiste is a multi-talented artist with a long history of musical involvement, from playing in a family band before he was nine years old to appearing nightly on Steven Colbert’s The Late Show with Steven Colbert. He’s advocated for the use of music in activism and unification, through transmitting messages and bringing people together. He and his band Stay Human have performed at several key activist events, such as the March for Science rally in 2017 and a major Juneteenth celebration in Brooklyn just this past year. His knowledge of jazz musical history is crucial for this movie and everything he worked on on the soundtrack is excellent.
When you bring all three of these people together, you get something great. This feels like that one time Disney announced their star-studded Lion King remake cast, except this finished product is pulled off far better. But the key here is, it’s well-known how excellent they are in their own projects and careers, but now how do they perform when working together? It’s here they get assisted by the film itself.
Soul (2020) is a film about two worlds. You have the real world in which protagonist Joe Gardner lives in New York City and dreams of hitting it big by playing with fictional jazz legend Dorothea Williams, and you have the afterlife where Joe ends up after he unceremoniously almost-but-not-really dies falling into an open manhole cover. New York is bright and colorful and filled with a fun stylized realism, and the afterlife is filled with soft light and calming shades of blue that almost evoke Pixar’s previous work on Inside Out (2015). And as far as the soundtrack is concerned, Reznor and Ross command the afterlife, and Batiste works his magic over New York.
While Joe is existing as a spirit, a lot of his surroundings are strange and ethereal, and Reznor and Ross bring out some hazy and echoing synths to accentuate this feeling. It is supernatural, it is beyond human comprehension, it sounds like if TRON (1982) was covered in a thick layer of mist. A lot of these tracks are such that listeners can tell what story beats are meant to be represented even without seeing the film, and that’s because Reznor and Ross are staggeringly competent. It does break away from the synth styles at points (such as “Pursuit / Terry’s World,” number 26 on the OST), but these are moments of high action and even then they fade in with stuttered beats and sweeping synths that feel like a high-intensity stealth mission.
On the other hand, Batiste’s portion of the music is pure jazz that runs a wide array of what the genre and style can be. The first song on the soundtrack, “Born to Play,” opens with drums jamming out, then enters a melody that is so stylistically reminiscent of John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps” that the mind almost fills in the gaps and auto-completes the rest of Coltrane’s leading riff. There are traces of scat singing in track 21- “Feel Soul Good”, there are big band and blues styles in track 10, “Joe’s Lowdown Blues,” there are one or two tracks that lean into the Latin roots of new wave, such as track 18, “Apex Wedge.” And while none of it is terribly experimental (what did you expect? It is a Disney project, after all), it’s also not watered down. It’s not a bland imitation of jazz, it’s proper jazz, which is so exciting. In a movie like this, it would have been a crime to go halfway.
The OST also has a few features that would be a mistake to ignore. Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) appears in a short rap/hip-hop segment that is one of the few tracks that has lyrics. This has a fairly simple rhyme scheme and the flow is very reminiscent of early hip-hop such as “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. The other major feature that requires pointing out is Cody Chesnutt’s “Parting Ways,” a slower and more soulful (no pun intended) acoustic guitar number that wrecks people emotionally once it’s placed in the context of the film. It’s just one of those songs that is easy to tell carries a huge impact in the right circumstance.
Ultimately, it’s hard to analyze any one track of an OST. These songs are built for moments in a longer work, made to accentuate or evoke emotion in tandem with visuals or dialogue. These things need to be taken in context of the entire project, not just as singles or anything like that. And in that context, this project holds up. The dichotomy between the two general styles works really well, given their differences are significant, but they are not without similarity. It’s hard to tell how much was communicated between the two sides, but Soul‘s soundtrack honestly provides a really solid listening on basically every track.