By Dwight Brown, NNPA News Wire Film Critic
Passing the love of jazz on to a younger generation, cloaked in the sweetness of an animated movie, is a genius move.
It’s a bit jarring. A New York City middle school band is murdering the Disney song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” By the time they’re through, you’d wish a dream-fulfilling star had given you earplugs. Still, they continue, inspired by their very patient music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx). Jazz is the reason their instructor loves music not matter how screechy the band gets. When Joe sits down to play the piano, he improvises like Keith Jarrett, playing with abandonment and using the melody as a starting point, which takes him to his nirvana: “The tune is just a tool to bring out the ‘you’.”
Though he dreams of a professional career, reality outweighs his ambition. He’s a grown man still living with his mom (Phylicia Rashad), barely eking out a living. Then one day he gets a tip that saxophone great Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) is looking for someone to tickle the ivories in her jazz quartet and he scores an audition.
Could things be going Joe’s way? They are until the day he walks across the street and falls down a manhole. He doesn’t exactly die and go to “The Great Beyond.” Instead, he is marooned in “The Great Before,” a place where personalities/souls are assembled and dispersed to those who will be born. This way station realm is run by ghostly creatures, many of whom are called “Jerry.” Joe wants out. His ticket back to real life may be a disgruntled and pessimistic infant soul named, No. 22 (Tina Fey, 30 Rock). Partnership made in heaven? Not exactly.
The scenes that take place on earth in New York capture the city’s essence. Noise, subways, cramped streets, neighborhood barbershops (Black men socializing in the most warmhearted ways)… The Half Note Club, where Williams’ quartet plays, may be the peak of NYC imagery. It mirrors Greenwich Village’s legendary Village Vanguard nightclub, where jazz legends like Betty Carter, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Miles Davis and Anita O’Day performed. The red awning, steep stairs that lead from the street to the floor below and the tight club room. It’s all the same—and so NY.
The music that enhances the visuals is impeccable. Credit Jon Batiste (bandleader The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), a Grammy-nominated musical pianist, for anything that sounds like jazz or looks like it too (his fingers playing the piano were the prototype for Joe’s). The other musical aspects, particularly the delightful and often electronic score in The Great Before, are courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar winners The Social Network) from the band Nine Inch Nails. Combined, the musical threads are a knockout. Either dreamy and melodious, frisky like jazz or quirky.
Heaven on earth: The colors, shapes and scenery in the real world are magnetic. Those used in the New York City sequences are filled with warm earth tones that make you feel more grounded. Also, the richly textured tan, brown and black skin tones of people in the Big Apple glisten (cinematographers Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben; art director Bryn Imagire).
A cold netherworld: The images in the other world are a bit too sci-fi, techie and not nearly as inviting. The pastel colors tend to be pale with lots of white lines, almost icy looking and very abstract. That’s the film’s glitch. The longer the camera lingers in The Great Before the more likely it is that adults will lose interest and only kids will stay tuned—or they may flake off too. Thus, there are several reasons for wanting Joe to find his way back to his earth. A.) He deserves it. B.) It has the more fascinating turf.
Engaging animation is very familiar territory for writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out and Up). He gets a great assist from playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) who takes on co-screenwriter and co-director duties. Mike Jones (Evenhand) as the third writer adds in his two cents and the result is a very energetic story about a young man following his dream, aided by an annoying, candidly dour imp and surrounded by either grounded characters or sci-fi ones. It’s the right kind of fusion especially as Pixar welcomes the African American experience into their mix for the very first time.
After Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for Ray, the roles he picked never truly exploited his talent. Oddly, with just his voice and personality, Foxx shines a lot brighter, like a kid in a candy store, as he gives Joe verve. Ambitious, optimistic, vulnerable—his energy is infectious. Also, Tina Fey is on fire as the little wisp struggling to find her humanity and needing Joe as her guide. Foxx and Fey are symbiotic, especially as their personae crosspollinate. It’s a bond that is surprisingly heartwarming.
For added attraction, viewers will have fun figuring out which cast members supplied the voices of the various characters. They can pick from: Graham Norton, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Daveed Diggs, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi…
Sit down. Grab a glass of wine—if you’re old enough. Pop some popcorn. Make this an intergenerational event for grandparents, adults and kids and no one will be disappointed. Though parents beware, you may need to explain the meaning of birth, life and death to your offspring. It won’t be as tough as the birds and the bees conversation, but…
After 100 minutes roll by fairly quickly (editor Kevin Nolting), most viewers will leave the room humming. Humming jazz. That simple act will help preserve a music form that dates back to the 1920s. That’s a blessing.
Streaming on Disney+ December 25th, 2020.