Even Death needs a holiday sometimes, but on the Discworld this can have strange effects. Luckily the Grim Reaper has an adequate holiday replacement with his adopted granddaugter Susan, even if the young lady has a few beginner's problems with her new job. Meanwhile, Imp Y Celyn, a young bard from Llamendos, arrives in Ankh-Morpork to take his chance as a musician. He meets the troll drummer Lias and the drawf saxophonist Glod, who join forces against the opressive musician's guild. But strange things happen when they go to a mysterious music store and Buddy neé Imp buys a Guitar with a life of its own...
For a long time, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels were regarded as completely unfilmable and the author did not take a chance with television or cinema adaptations. The SkyOne adaptations of Hogfather, The Colour of Magic and Going Postal have since changed this, but the way for these successful movies was paved in the late 1990s by two projects of the british animation studio Cosgrove Hall. For these, Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music, two of Terry Pratchett's most popular novels were chosen, of which the latter one proved to be the more ambitious adaptation. Not only a top-notch animation with good voice acting had to be produced, but also an appropriate soundtrack.
While Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novels were more or less straight fantasy parodies, in the later stories the flat world had evolved out of the dark ages. Moving Pictures had introduced the film industry into the Discworld and a couple of books later Terry Pratchett continued the theme with the emergence of pop and rock in Soul Music. He also took this opportunity to continue the story of Death's adoptive daughter Ysabell from Mort and made her daughter Susan the actual protagonist of the book. The story about the most unique band in all of fantasy was riddled with countless references to music history and for this reason was not exactly an ideal candidate for an animated adaption, but this did not stop Cosgrove Hall at all.
Soul Music is one of the longer and more complex Discworld Stories, which could not be divided into only four episodes like Wyrd Sisters. Script writer Martin Jameson and author Terry Pratchett hat therefore decided to leave the main part of the story intact and split it into seven 24-minute episodes with a runtime of nearly three hours. Of course the story had to be tightened and smaller subplots had to be eliminated or shortened, but altogether the original story had not been changed much. The similarities to the career of the Beatles were put more into the foreground, but Terry Pratchett's sharp dialogue, which was already fit for a script, was adopted nearly unchanged. Director Jean Flynn, who was also responsible on Wyrd Sisters, had a perfect script to work with.
The visual design of Soul Music was a huge challenge for Cosgrove Hall, because the locations were not limited to a handful of sceneries, but wandered all over the Discworld and even did not stop at supernatural residences. On one side, the chaotic, colourful and a bit grimy Ankh-Morpork had to be shown, but on the other side Death's completely monochrome estate and many other cities around the Discworld during the many tour stops of the band. The backgrounds were impressivly detailed and a real feast for the eyes, but were mostly seen only for a short time.
The character design was of course simpler, but still much more complex than in many other animated series. Following the typical style of Cosgrove Hall, the animators worked less with shades and gradients than with clear lines and single-coloured surfaces, which, however, gives the characters only a slightly cartoon look. The faces are not caricartures in the first place, but are more geared towards realism with their very expressive and dynamic facial expressions.
For Death, a very original solution was found: in order not to show the viewers only a rigid skull, it was brought to life with a set of completely unrealistic, but in the realms of animation entirely natural-looking movements. This did not fall for the old cliché of a moving jaw, but instead used the whole skull for brilliant "facial" expressions. Although, like many other animated productions, Soul Music had been made with half the usual framerate, movements looked always fluid and even in the more complex crowd scenes were completely realistic.
Like with Wyrd Sisters, Cosgrove Hall had a good hand with the casting of the voices for Soul Music. Especially remarable was the problem of finding a perfect voice of Death, who is an antropomorphic personification and basically a real person, but still adheres to the skeleton-and-scythe mythos. In his books, Terry Pratchett had described his voice as closing coffin lids and may even have thought of horror film legend Christopher Lee. Surprisingly, Cosgrove Hall was not only able to find someone sounding like the actor, but to really hire him, giving the personified Death, who is actually not frightening but very human, exactly the right voice. Not many other actors could have filled this role better than Christopher Lee, who does not even need any artificial reverb or echo with his sonorous voice to fully embrace his character.
There is no real cental main character in Soul Music, because the plot is an ensemble story, making the casting of the many characters especially difficult - but Jean Flynn and her Team at Cosgrove Hall had really risen to the occasion. For Death's granddaughter Susan the producers had chosen an old acquaintance: Debra Gillet had already voiced one of the lead roles in their stop-motion adaptation of Truckers. The actress brings the many different sides of Susan Sto Helit - from a somewhat shy, but fatalistic teenager to Death's granddaughter in the line of duty - brilliantly to life and makes her character completely her own.
A lucky find was Andy Hockley, who was more known on the stage than in film and television. He was able to bring exactly the right youthful energy and audaciousness into the young bard-come-rockstar Imp Y Celyn. He also gave his voice a perfect, but not too intrusive accent resembling a delicious Mersey twang. Robert Rackstraw, a very busy british voice actor, as the dwarf saxophonist Glod, also sounds like he could have gone to school together with John Lennon or Paul McCartney, but the choice for the drummer Lias alias Cliff was even better: George Harris gave the troll, a species really based on rock on the Discworld, a wonderful gravelly jazz man voice, which could not have been a better choice.
While animation and voice actors are one half of Soul Music, the music is responsible for the other half of the series' success. This time, not only the usual background score was needed, but the musical evolution of the Band With Rocks In described in the novel had also to be implemented. Cosgrove Hall was lucky to have Keith Hopwood and Phil Bush on board, a team of musicians who were able to create a series of songs to chronicle a journey through music history from the end of the 1950s to modern pop music.
Altogether eight songs and an instrumental were recorded, so that each episode of the series could be devoted to a musical epoch. The journey starts with a deliberately shakily performed folk song called Gathering Rhubarb, which had already mentioned in a couple of earlier Discworld stories, but this was quickly followed by Big Moon Rising, an early rock'n'roll cracker in the style of Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. The next entry was Cover Girl, a rousing piano rocker resembling Little Richard and Carl Perkins, while She Won't Change Her Mind was clearly a wonderful Beatles hommage from their catalogue of about 1965. Touchstone was about everything flower power, while Good Lovin' imitated the Blues Brothers very well - in the animation even with the signature suits and shades. Guitar heroes like Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Eddie van Halen were the subject of Pathway to Paradise and the brilliant finale is comprised of a wonderful and moving harp solo, followed by the 80s pop hymn The Messenger.
All the songs have one thing in common: terrific arrangements, who manage to capture the completely different styles spot-on without borrowing too much from the originals. Keith Hopwood, the former guitarist of Peter Noone's Herman's Hermits did not only contribute the singing voice of all songs, but also the brilliant guitar parts, which not only consisted of very competent rhythm parts, but also many amazing solos. They go hand in hand with the very successfull arrangements of producer and co-composer Phil Bush, from which many other musicians could learn a lot. The lyrics of the musically brilliant songs are, however, mostly deliberate nonsense digging at the triviality of many old pop songs from the 1950s and 1960s.
With Soul Music, Cosgrove Hall had created an astonishingly successful animated adaption of Terry Pratchetts virtually unfilmable book, which was not only able to delight with great animation and remarkable voices, but also with an awesome soundtrack, which was able to implement the musical elements of the novel perfectly. With this, Soul Music was able to become so much more than a run-of-the-mill animated series, appealing not only to fans of Terry Pratchett but also to music lovers.
Soul Music was released together with Wyrd Sisters in 2000 on DVD in the UK after it had already been available on VHS since about 1998. The original structure of seven episodes was kept and the disc had been outfitted with some very interesting extras like an extensive interview with Terry Pratchett. The image quality is luckily much better than Wyrd Sisters, so there is not much to improve in this highly recommended DVD.
The disc reviewed in this article is from a british double-pack together with Wyrd Sisters, which contained the previously seperatly available DVDs together in a cardboard slipcase. Unfortunately the british DVD is still out of print at this time and is only available second-hand. Since 2009 there is also a German release of Soul Music from the distributor KSM, which has the English soundtrack, but none of the extras of the british edition.