Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Soloist on DVD

By Nathan Cone
In 2005, a Los Angeles Times reporter stumbled upon a unique sight in the middle of downtown L.A. on his way back to the office. There was a lone man, in his mid fifties, playing a violin with two missing strings. Something about the man intrigued Lopez, and after some conversation and a little digging, Lopez found out the man, Nathaniel Ayers, was a former Julliard student whose schizophrenia led him to life on the streets for over 30 years. Through a series of columns in the Los Angeles Times, Lopez told Ayers’ story, and how the two men developed a friendship that went beyond the typical journalist/subject relationship.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? In a special feature included on the DVD of the film “The Soloist,” Lopez himself talks about how Hollywood producers came knocking on his door soon after the story began to develop in the paper. But what works well on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez in the film “The Soloist,” and Jamie Foxx stars as Ayers. Both men deliver solid, compassionate performances. But even though it seems like all cylinders are firing in “The Soloist,” there’s a curious lack of emotional connection to the story and characters. I’ve tried to think what it is that is keeping this story at arm’s length. Downey Jr. does well in portraying the determination to get the story that feeds the reporter’s soul, and nothing about Foxx’s role as Ayers is syrupy or over-the-top as one might fear. Maybe it’s something about the disease itself. Ayers’ schizophrenia led him to distance himself from family and friends, fearful of the voices in his head. And if even family members had a hard time connecting to Ayers, that means there’s an extra challenge in store for the filmmakers when all you have is a two-hour movie.

I haven’t read Lopez’ columns or the subsequent book that “The Soloist” is based on, but I suspect that the story reads better than it plays on screen. The printed word may be better at conveying the emotional heft of Ayers’ relationship with Lopez (and Beethoven); or, at least it may allow for more time for the audience to develop an understanding of Ayers and schizophrenia in general.

“The Soloist” is not without its merits, though. By illustrating that Nathaniel Ayers’ story is one of many on L.A.’s Skid Row, this movie fulfills an important mission. In another of the DVD’s special features, volunteers and staff members from LAMP (Los Angeles Men’s Project) and Midnight Mission in Los Angeles speak in plain truths about the homeless problem in L.A. Casey Horan, LAMP’s Executive Director, points out the astonishing statistic that Los Angeles has more homeless persons than New York City, Chicago, Houston, Portland, San Francisco and Philadelphia combined. If the only thing “The Soloist” does is raise greater awareness of the homeless population, and the need for humanitarian and financial aid, then it has succeeded.

Related story: “The Soloist” featured on NPR’s News & Notes.

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