In a key scene from Pixar-Disney’s latest film “Soul,” the protagonist, Joe Gardner, a frustrated middle-school band teacher yearning to be a jazz pianist, describes moments of sublime musical creativity as being “in the zone.” While that state plays a pivotal role in the film, it also describes the rarified atmosphere that pianist Jon Batiste is occupying these days.
Known for his day job as the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” the 34-year-old New Orleans-born, Juilliard-trained keyboardist contributed the crucial jazz component to “Soul.” He’s up for two Grammy Awards at this year’s (delayed) ceremony and will release another album, “We Are,” on March 19, but his music in “Soul” is generating even more critical kudos these days — and 2021 Oscar buzz.
Co-directors/co-writers Pete Docter and Kemp Powers called on Batiste to score the jazz played by Gardner (who is voiced by Jamie Foxx) and other characters, as well as the hectic soundtrack of New York City. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won the original score Oscar for their work on 2010’s “The Social Network” (they also scored David Fincher’s “Mank” and stand a chance of a double nomination) worked on the more ethereal music for the film’s other main setting, the Great Before. Given how integral both soundtracks are to the film, all three musicians will be submitted for score consideration, even though Batiste’s contributions are below the Oscars’ usual 60% of total music standard, a Disney rep confirms.
“We’re humbly petitioning the Academy on that,” says Batiste, who comes from a sprawling New Orleans musical dynasty. “After seeing the finished product, how our compositions work together to tell the narrative, it would only be right to acknowledge all three of us as being integral to telling that story.”
For Batiste, who calls it a “blessed lineage” to grow up as he did, “the cultural and thematic heartbeat of the movie is Black American music and jazz, from
Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy to Donald Byrd and [jazz pianist] Duke Pearson to Third stream [an improvisatory mix of jazz and classical],” he says. “I feel like the embodiment of what those pioneers built — that I’m standing on their shoulders, reimagining the music for today through my sensibility.”
It’s not just Batiste’s sensibility that appears in the film: His long-fingered, archetypal piano-player hands and hunched-over style provided inspiration for the animators at Pixar. Docter says, “We set up cameras everywhere when [Batiste] was playing, and the animators studied those videos to animate Joe’s fingers.”
The soundtrack’s division of labor is fairly clear, with Reznor and Ross’ otherworldly Great Before music contrasting with Batiste’s often-gritty jazz. “There are the other planes where the film takes place, and that was us, primarily,” Reznor says, describing their music as “ethereal, synthetic and meticulous.”
The pair also had to think on their feet, as working with Docter was unlike anything they had previously experienced, Reznor says. “Entire sections of the script would disappear and new characters would emerge, but it really gets into how important the [film’s core] story is.”
At the film’s heart is the characteristically tear-jerking Pixar scene, the “Epiphany” sequence, in which Gardner realizes the simple joys of life, with a musical soundscape that found Reznor, Ross and Batiste working in tandem.
“It’s the emotional climax of the film, the meeting of the two sides of the score,” Batiste says, “so it was very special bringing everything together.”
In fact, he says, contributing to “Soul” turned out to be a perfect complement to his musical birthright.
“Joe Gardner represents many of my beliefs about jazz and the way it can take you and the audience to a special place tied into our spirit and soul. That’s when we’re tapping into the spark that makes us all unique individuals.”
And whether or not there are any trophies for the film in his future, he concludes, “Working on this film has been award enough for me.”