Pixar’s Soul is mostly a product of the imagination, a fantastical exploration of what happens when human beings enter “The Great Beyond.” But its protagonist, a middle school music teacher in Queens named Joe Gardner, isn’t wholly imagined. He’s largely based on a real-life middle school music teacher in Queens named Dr. Peter Archer.
“My passion as a musician is just to play, same as Joe Gardner,” Archer told the New York Daily News. “And I think I found my spark, my love, if you will, my love for education, by accident.”
Archer retired in June after 34 years as the music teacher at M.S. 74 Nathaniel Hawthorne in Bayside, Queens. He stumbled into education after accepting a part-time internship teaching band at a different Queens middle school. He thought it would be a brief stop en route to a career as a trumpeter in a symphony orchestra.
“I shied away from” teaching, Archer said of his early hesitance to commit to a career in education. “People have this notion that people who can’t play teach … it’s a negative stigma of sorts attributed to musicians not able to find employment.”
Gardner faces a similar predicament in Soul, and it’s just when he’s been offered a full-time teaching job and successfully auditioned for a jazz musician that he falls down a manhole into the “Great Beyond.”
The creative team behind the movie found Archer while looking for real-life people who resembled Gardner. They recruited him to be a sort of consultant on the film, and Archer spoke extensively with director Peter Docter and made several trips to Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California.
Archer’s fingerprints are all over the movie. The opening scene of the film takes place in a classroom based directly on Archer’s classroom at P.S. 74. One of Archer’s former students is a successful jazz drummer, and it’s one of Gardner’s former students, a drummer, who gets him his big break in the film. He also made sure that the fulfillment of teaching young people made it into the emotional climax of the film.
“I mentioned to Pete that what I saw initially was a little concerning in that the movie starts with kids and I feel like there should be something there at the end that the audience sees a return with the children,” Archer recalled.
Soul is available to stream now on Disney+.