Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jnr) discovers Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a former classical music prodigy, playing Beethoven on his violin (short of two strings) on the streets of LA. His writings about Nathaniel elicit a quick response from readers, including the donation of a cello in perfect condition. At first, as Lopez endeavours to help the homeless man find his way back to a normal life, Nathaniel's unstable mental condition hinders his efforts - but he also gains an insight into the man's passion for music (especially Beethoven). After a challenging year, a unique friendship is formed, one that transforms both their lives.
Review by Louise Keller:
In the year that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, we are reminded of Neil Armstrong's words 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' There may be nothing whatsoever that is similar between the moon landing and the plight of a schizophrenic, homeless man with a musical gift, but it struck a chord with me in the instance of Jamie Foxx's Nathaniel Ayers that the notion of friendship offers a springboard that is a giant leap of progress in his life.
It is through Robert Downey's LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, that we become involved in Nathaniel's world. Colour plays a big part: the Beethoven-crazy Nathaniel always wears bright colours, and when he listens to music, colour is what he sees when he closes his eyes. Screenwriter Susannah Grant, who also penned the screenplay for Erin Brockovich, has structured her adaptation of Lopez' book, by enticing us into his mind. Through Downey Jnr's narration, we are privy to Lopez' thoughts and experiences and discovery of a purpose, dictated into a Sony recorder. 'Life has a mind of its own,' flashes a headline on a newspaper that is running through the presses at the beginning of the film. Readers love it when you bleed, Catherine Keener's Mary tells Lopez, when he looks worse for wear after a bicycle accident. But it is not until Lopez comes across Nathaniel playing a violin with only two strings at the foot of a statue of Beethoven, that the direction of Lopez' life changes. His initial interest in Nathaniel is simple - fodder for his newspaper column: how a former Julliard student ends up on the streets. It ends up being so much more.
There is no denying the profundity of Lopez' life-changing experience as he tries to help Nathaniel realise his musical talents. As a film, even in the hands of Atonement director Joe Wright and with talents such as the amazing Downey Jnr, Foxx and Keener, our emotional experience is strangely muted. Even the magnificent orchestral Beethoven pieces which are towering emotional triggers themselves (and I am passionate about Beethoven), failed to move me to great heights in the context. As you would expect, the performances are wonderful and utterly successful is the bitter-sweet relationship between Lopez and his ex-wife Mary, which screams out its unfinished nature. Equally real is Lopez' anguish as he tries to help Nathanial in the only way he knows how. Nathanial's confusion and distress is real, too, but the integration of the two worlds, often feels as bumpy as Lopez' head from the initial accident. I especially loved Wright's portrayal of the assorted homeless people and society discards at LAMP, whose poignancy affected me beyond anything else.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
For anyone who deeply loves music, The Soloist will be a special pleasure, offering many moments of great music - but also the access to one man's powerful response to what is surely the intravenous artform, one which creates an instant emotional effect, unlike any other artform. But there is also one special sequence in this film that stands out as a marvellous cinematic invention which I would certainly like to have at my command as an experience. It's a scene in which Jamie Foxx' Nathaniel has been invited to a rehearsal with the LA Symphony playing one of his favourite Beethoven pieces. He and his newfound friend Steve Lopez (Robert Downey jnr) are sitting alone in the auditorium, and as the camera closes in and Nathaniel closes his eyes to listen intently, we see what he sees in his mind's eye: a spectacular abstract light and colour show married to the music.
This fact-based story takes very few liberties in its imagined scenes - like flashbacks in Nathaniel's life - and largely sticks to the point of view of columnist Steve Lopez, who finds the experience dizzyingly frustrating and rewarding all at once. Downey jnr is excellent in the role, creating a character whose flaws and strengths are evident to all - including himself. Foxx works wonders in forging a character that is incredibly hard to capture with veracity, a schizophrenic with a prodigious musical talent, moments of lucidity and a deep well of humanity. He is forever on the edge - either of brilliance or mental chaos.
Catherine Keener makes an important and sensitive contribution as Mary Weston, Lopez's ex and now his editor, as does Nelson Ellis as David, one of the care workers at LAMP, the LA refuge for the homeless. The scenes shot here are authentic and fearsome, using genuine residents of this subculture; the setting is given even greater impact at the end when we learn there are a staggering 90,000 homeless people in the greater Los Angeles area.
But this film isn't as much about homelessness as about helplessness - and how some people are able not necessarily to overcome it, but to manage it. And how people like Steve Lopez, unintentionally help themselves when they try to help others. That's a great message.
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SOLOIST, THE (M)
CAST: Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Lisagay Hamilton, Tom Hollander, Catherine Keener,
PRODUCER: Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff
DIRECTOR: Joe Wright
SCRIPT: Susannah Grant (book by Steve Lopez)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Seamus McGarvey
EDITOR: Paul Tothill
MUSIC: Dario Marianelli
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sarah Greenwood
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 3, 2009