Jamie Foxx stars in The Soloist, a true-life drama about a friendship between a homeless musician and a newsman.
Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Foxx) lives for Beethoven. The gifted cellist plays in the streets, where the acoustics of a traffic tunnel are perfect for him. It is there that he feels free and safe.
Ayers’ career ended when paranoid schizophrenia made it impossible for him to continue his Juilliard studies. He hears voices. He teeters between mania and rage.
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is moved one day by Ayers’ violion solo in a deserted public plaza. He is amazed to discover that the man is playing with only two strings.
Taken with Ayers’ musical gift, Lopez researches the street dweller and features him in his Points West column. What began as a need for a story idea grows.
Lopez seeks to befriend Nathaniel, coaxing him to reconnect with mainstream society. Their friendship becomes strained as he tries to “fix” Ayers, who says he is happy living in the streets.
Ayers’ ramblings sometimes turn into lucid, even poetic observations. As he retires for the night to his sidewalk bedroll, he prays for “all God’s children.”
Scores of homeless mill around him. Many talk to themselves, scuffle and get high. In a powerful scene, Lopez spends the night beside Ayers, who gives thanks for all he has and sees beauty amidst rats and squalor.
While The Soloist has been criticized for its Hollywood take on mental illness, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant deserve kudos for a groundbreaking effort. Ayers resists others’ attempts to change him, but he does open up instinctively to love.
Homeless with dignity
The street cellist chooses to live independently with dignity. His character differs from Russell Crowe’s John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or Robert De Niro’s Leonard in Awakenings, where family and institutional care were key.
Foxx’s performance makes The Soloist great. With the friendship and respect of Lopez, he is transformed. Ayers is more than mentally ill, even more than a gifted cellist. At one point he confronts Lopez for calling him “Nathaniel” while he respectfully calls the reporter “Mr. Lopez.” Such honesty is the way of true friendship.
L.A. mayor steps in
Hundreds of homeless individuals portray themselves in later scenes. At the time of filming, there were over 90,000 homeless in Greater Los Angeles. This social issue is highlighted as Mayor Antonio Villaraigrosa (Marcos De Silvas) piggybacks on the popularity of Lopez’s column and directs more funding to the LAMP Community. The film is based on Lopez’s book The Soloist.
Unfortunately the impact of The Soloist is dampened with frequent cuts to Lopez’s mid-life crisis.
Lopez’s search for self
Catherine Keener succeeds in the kind of role she is known for. As Lopez’s neurotic, well-meaning ex-wife and his editor at The Times, she reins in the dreamer yet admires his idealism. She accuses Lopez of lack of commitment in his relationships, yet remains his best friend.
Lisa Gay Hamilton accomplishes great emotive depth with very little screen time as the sister who approaches Nathaniel. She last saw him years ago as he fled, advancing into the street, cello in his arms. (4 out of 5 stars)
If you like The Soloist, you might enjoy: Man Push Cart; Please Give.
The Soloist 2008 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 49 min
Cast Overview: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Lisa Gay Hamilton, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Justin Martin, Tom Hollander, Angela Featherstone, Justin Rodgers Hall, Rachael Harris
Director: Joe Wright
Genres: Drama, Biopic, Music, Drama Based on the Book