Dear readers: as I write this, Christmas is over, the New Year soon to arrive. Happy 2021, everyone!

To welcome in the New Year properly, let’s not talk about a new recording or an emerging classical artist for once. Instead, let's talk about Soul, the new Pixar feature now streaming on Disney+. It’s full of extraordinary music, not to mention the dazzling feats of animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar. It also exemplifies a singular pop-culture trope that keeps popping up in movies I watch (and I’ve watched a lot of movies in the last few months).

Call it the “what if” trope; it’s actually a staple of storytelling in all times and across many genres, including musical narrative. (We’ll get back to Soul as quickly as we can. I promise.)

As for the trope, Joshua Rothman, newyorker.com’s ideas editor (sounds like a sweet gig, doesn’t it?), recently laid out its dirty details in “What If You Could Do It All Over?”, his quasi-review of a new book, On Not Being Someone Else, by Andrew H. Miller. For Miller and Rothman, the crux of the matter was articulated long ago by one of my own heroes, Clifford Geertz, who wrote:

One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life, but end by having lived only one.

Sooner or later, perhaps at New Year’s, nearly everyone ponders Geertz’s “significant fact.” What if I’d taken that job at Goldman Sachs instead of joining a commune? Rothman deepens the discussion with anecdotes from his own life: as an undergrad in the late ‘90s, he was briefly a tech entrepreneur. Then the dotcom bubble burst, he met “a girl on the elevator,” and now he’s married, a journalist, a father. I’m glad he offered some personal history before wading into David Byrne (“Once in a Lifetime”), Henry James, and Robert Frost. He also tells more stories from Miller, like this one:

When the musician Melissa Etheridge and her partner decided to have children, they faced a decision: for their sperm donor, they considered one of two friends, David Crosby or Brad Pitt. They chose Crosby. “My teenagers now are, like, ‘I could have had Brad Pitt,’” Etheridge later said. “‘I could’ve been amazingly handsome.’”

Although I’ve stressed narrative issues so far, I don’t think the specific storyline for Pixar’s Soul need concern us overmuch. There’s a Guy Named Joe. This time, he’s a frustrated part-time band director at a middle school, but his dream is to play piano in an A-list jazz group. We hear just enough of his playing to realize he could step into that dream at the drop of a hat.

And then the hat drops.

To say more would do unnecessary damage to a necessarily fragile storyline, one that (like many a Rossini opera!) only achieves liftoff by relying on the virtuosity of its performers—in this case not only the actors and musicians but also Pixar’s talented animators. I happened to watch Soul with a friend who became annoyed when the story was interrupted or prolonged by clever visual fantasies. Shallow showing off, said he. No, no! Virtuosity! said I.

That’s because Soul’s luminous graphic displays reminded me of Paganini, Liszt, Eddie Van Halen. Such triumphs of craft and creativity continue a proud cinematic tradition going back to the very beginnings of film (see below). Historically, the magic realism of movie cartooning led quickly to Clarabelle Cow‘s delightful ambulations; ultimately it enabled those legendary battles between Bugs and Elmer, Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner.

 

Really, why would a filmmaker cast any story as a feature-length animated cartoon, if not to draw upon animation’s peculiar powers, to go where “naturalism” dare not intrude? Skilled animators can use smart, funny, breathtakingly ingenious visuals to sustain the slightest of stories—stories that usually include supernatural elements already. That sort of narrative needs all the virtuosity an artist can bring—as many trills, passaggi, and high C’s as possible. (It's possible that Soul’s flawless execution of the “what if” trope will help save the trope itself from extinction in our time.)

Speaking of trills and passaggi: Pianist Jon Batiste, who “plays” Joe the pianist on the soundtrack, festoons his keyboard improvisations with all the melodic decoration the law will allow. Soul constantly reminds us that jazz itself is an improvisatory genre. Pixar’s animation trickery skips away hand-in-hand with whatever the musicians throw at it, which is a lot.

The quartet playing most of the onscreen jazz probably consists of Batiste, drummer Marcus Gilmore, bass player Linda May Han Oh, and saxophonist Tia Fuller (a Spelman alumna I got to know during her student days in Atlanta). Legendary bebop drummer Roy Haynes—Gilmore's grandfather—also plays on the soundtrack, as do saxophonist Eddie Barbash and singer-songwriter Cody Chesnutt. A slew of advisors seasoned the stew: Questlove, Terri Lyne Carrington, Herbie Hancock, and several distinguished academics. (The film’s music credits are extensive but vague and apparently incomplete; you'll find helpful discussions of how the puzzle was put together in reports from Ethan Iverson and Mekado Murphy, plus Fuller’s detailed description of her work.) Batiste composed original music but also incorporated staples from the Ellington and Brubeck catalogs; one's overall impression is of exuberant hard bop from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But wait, there’s more: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contributed synthesized music for scenes in the Great Before. In short, there’s a lot of music in there; see Wikipedia’s discussion of the soundtrack.

And now, patient reader, we return to the “what if” trope for a few parting shots. In one helpful comment, Rothman (remember Rothman?) reminds of us just how broadly the trope can be interpreted:

As Sartre says, we are who we are. But isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real; to know what someone isn’t—what she might have been, what she’s dreamed of being—this is to know someone intimately.

If you could use some help picturing negative space, just watch Céline Sciamma’s celebrated Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which amplifies and widens Rothman’s discussions by adding sexual taboos and patriarchal politics to its geography. In the film, three 18th-century women, a painter, her subject, and a housemaid, negotiate their futures—the lives they will lead, and the lives they have been denied—separately and together. Sciamma chose to make the film with a virtually music-free soundtrack (we do get bits of Vivaldi at crucial moments); the effect is ravishingly beautiful.

Music—and Puccini’s La Bohème at that—looms larger in Moonstruck, an Oscar-winning movie from 1987 with Cher, Nicholas Cage, and a host of wonderfully well-cast supporting actors. As the pandemic raged on this summer, Moonstruck became popular again, especially with New Yorkers. For half a clue as to why, you could do worse than read “‘Moonstruck’ Knows That the Best Things in Life Aren’t Chosen,” by B. D. McClay (warning: many spoilers). In the film, it’s immediately clear that Loretta Castorini, age 37 and widowed, has not made a major effort to imagine her unled life. When alternatives arrive, they hit her eye like a big you-know-what. The magic of the story is that it reconciles ironclad reality with the wondrously accidental. There’s also something special about the sight of Brooklyn’s crowded streets, shops, and little restaurants, newly wondrous again now that they’re nearly deserted.

The “what if” trope has given us dozens of modern time-travel fantasies, from H. G. Wells’ original dark tale through Back to the Future, Dark, and Christopher Nolan’s entire fictional universe. It contributes to Bohème, in which aspiring poet Rodolfo meets a girl in the stairwell and gains the inspiration for his next 200 bad poems. It’s central to Verdi's La Traviata, in which party girl Violetta Valéry meets a boy at a party and decides—just for him—to forswear partying forever. It probably belongs to that handful of starter myths that kept our ancestors, primeval fabulists all, up at night gazing at the stars and naming dozens of constellations, each a story waiting to be told.

Great cities seem essential to modern takes on “what if," perhaps because the best ones happen when people are crammed together, forced to interact in surprising, touching, fanciful ways. If it can't be Paris, City of Light, then New York, city of Con Ed, will do nicely. New York works better, in fact, if the story involves a piano player named Joe and a fabled club called (here) the Half-Note, just down a flight of stairs somewhere in the Village. Hope to see you all there again, this year, for real, in person.

Header image: Trombone Shorty, age 5, New Orleans 1990.

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