August 1, 2009

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Based on a true story, The Soloist tells the tragic tale of Nathaniel Ayers, a once promising Julliard student who ends up on the streets of Los Angeles’ skid row.  He is befriended by Steve Lopez – a columnist for the Los Angeles Times looking for his next story.  Played by the always wonderful Robert Downey Jr., Lopez instantly becomes fascinated with Nathaniel.  How could this musically gifted person end up on the streets of Los Angeles?  As the film unfolds, we come to find that Nathaniel has struggled with schizophrenia his entire adult life. More after the jump:

the_soloist_movie_poster.jpgDirector Joe Wright takes us through Nathaniel’s early life from child musical prodigy with a love for Beethoven, to a young man attending the prestigious Julliard school.  Jaime Foxx does a superb job of transforming himself into the confused, yet sympathetic Nathaniel Ayers.  Speaking in rapid-fire succession, Nathaniel is articulate and bright enough to remember facts, figures and names yet is riddled and plagued by this insidious mental disorder.  Upon seeing an airplane in the sky above them, Nathaniel asks Lopez – who is standing beside him – “Are you flying that plane?”  To which Lopez responds, “No.  I’m right here.”  It’s a simple yet effective moment in the film that sadly illustrates the destructive nature of this disorder and the devastating effect it has on people.

Becoming more than just a “story,” Lopez routinely goes out of his way to help Nathaniel.  Using his clout as a respected Times columnist, Lopez finds Nathaniel a new cello to play; succeeds in getting Nathaniel off the street (temporarily) and into an apartment and connects Nathaniel to the Disney Concert Hall where he sits in on rehearsals.  Lopez’s pleas to get Nathaniel on medication are ignored, which is a shame, as the film does leave one to wonder if this could have helped.  These are all commendable actions by Lopez, who often finds himself wrestling with the complexities of being involved with such a person.  This is all played rather straight-forward by Downey, but he is such a gifted actor, he makes even the most mundane seem interesting.

The Soloist feels a bit disjointed and uneven at times.  There are several subplots including coyote urine (no kidding), Nathaniel’s sister and Lopez’s ex-wife and boss, Mary, that don’t quite even out and my guess is that there just wasn’t enough for Director Joe Wright to work with here.  The many grand, sweeping overhead shots on display of Los Angeles and a musical number set to colored lights later on, are awkward at best.  It’s almost as if the film aspires to soar to great heights and instead, sputters out.  To the Director’s credit, using real LAMP (Los Angeles Men’s Project) homeless community members and shooting on skid row do add authenticity to the film, as does employing the use of multiple voice-overs, musical cues and jarring cuts to get across the “feel” of schizophrenia.   I couldn’t help but feel that The Soloist would have made a much better short than feature-length film.  Having said that, the performances of Foxx and Downey alone make the The Soloist worth checking out.


Special Features on The Soloist include a twenty minute documentary entitled, “An Unlikely Friendship: Making the Soloist.”  Producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff relate their experiences in turning Steve Lopez’s column on Nathaniel into a feature-length film.  This includes a story on the scary nature of going down to the LAMP community with the “mayor of skid row” Steve Lopez, to see and experience this world for themselves.

Likewise, Director Joe Wright explains how he would only make the film if it involved the residents of the LAMP community while screenwriter Susannah Grant stresses how very important it was to capture the humanity of these people.  This is all nicely juxtaposed against the real-life Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers who relate their story and how they first met.  “Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez” is a five minute documentary between the real life Nathaniel Ayers and Steve Lopez who further relate how they first met.  Also included in this documentary is Mr. Ayers’ sister, Jennifer, who provides some interesting insight into her brother and his mindset.   “One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles” is a seven minute documentary featuring some of the leaders of LAMP discussing their organization and the homeless problem in general.  Executive Director Casey Horan provides the sobering and sad statistic of seventy-four thousand homeless in Los Angeles – more than the cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Houston and Philadelphia combined.

While the statistics are grim, this is an inspiring documentary about the efforts of LAMP and all they do in bringing about awareness to the homeless situation both in Los Angeles and nationwide.  Finally, there is “Beth’s story,” a two minute animated short that shows us just how easy it is for someone – through no fault of their own – to become homeless.  A running commentary by Director Joe Wright rounds out the special features.

The Soloist is presented in widescreen format and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound.

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