You can learn more about the story of mentally ill musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers in a 12-minute segment of a March 60 Minutes broadcast than in the 109 minutes of The Soloist. But what a wonderful 109 minutes they are.
You could also dispute some of screenwriter Susannah Grant’s moments of artistic license regarding the journalist who discovered Ayers, Steve Lopez, and his personal life. You could question her leaving out of the film certain important facts about Ayers, like the shock therapy that damaged Ayers’s mental state. You could also question the casting — Jamie Foxx is more than 10 years younger than his character, Ayers, and the real Steve Lopez isn’t nearly as good-looking as Robert Downey Jr. And you could argue that some segments of the film don’t have a lot of relevance: Why open with Lopez’s motorcycle accident, for example, which contributes little insight into Lopez or his meeting with Ayers; why spend precious screen time on Lopez’s battle to defeat neighborhood raccoons with bags of coyote urine?
But if we wanted pure, unfettered reality, we’d watch the 60 Minutes segment or read Lopez’s book about his relationship with Ayers. All of the exaggerations, composites, curiosities, and omissions in The Soloist are irrelevant when judging the movie as a piece of entertainment on its own merits, and in this regard, the film excels. Though Grant and director Joe Wright (Atonement) may have tinkered with the facts, nothing on the screen feels the least bit artificial. In fact, at times it almost resembles an ethnographic film in its depiction of just a small portion of the approximately 80,000 homeless people — many of whom are mentally ill — who populate the streets of Los Angeles.
The story begins with L.A. Times columnist Lopez; after returning from a freak biking accident, he’s looking for a story to meet an urgent deadline. Lopez finds a gold mine in the form of Ayers, a homeless man playing gorgeous music on a rickety two-string violin. As the pair forms a bond, one column becomes a series, prompting readers to send Ayers their own instruments to replace his. Lopez becomes nothing less than a literal god to Ayers, whose troubled past — acceptance to Juilliard, development of paranoid schizophrenia and a tortured return to his mother’s basement — is revealed through flashbacks.
The Soloist is as much about the power of music to transform as it is about friendship. Wright films Ayers’s street solos as symphonies for an entire city, his music the soundtrack to the director’s sweeping L.A. vistas. In the movie’s most beautiful moment, as Ayers and Lopez watch the Los Angeles Philharmonic at a rehearsal in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the film illuminates the phantasmagoric collage of colors playing in Ayers’s head — a jolt of pure cinema that provides a subjective peek into the disturbed prodigy’s mind.
There is no sentimentality in The Soloist, no tacked-on happy ending. There’s no ending at all, really — Ayers’s situation is roughly the same today as it was in 2005. The film’s closing montage lights up the faces of many of the other mentally ill (and predominantly black) homeless people who congregate in the city’s Lamp housing community, suggesting that while the story itself may focus on Ayers, the movie is for them.