Early in "The Soloist", Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) is looking for his next story when he hears music softly playing in the distance. When he eventually locates the source of the music, Steve finds a man playing a violin with only two strings. Struck by the music and the man’s ability to master the worn instrument, Lopez introduces himself and so began his relationship with Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). The two men chat for awhile about things Nathaniel says or has written on his belongings and Steve becomes quickly aware of the fact that Nathaniel has some mental illness. Just before turning away and having only the memory of music on a so-so day to take with him, Nathaniel mentions that he went to Julliard. Steve’s reporter instincts pounce at the opportunity to inquire further and find the reality of the story.
The storytelling style of "The Soloist" is specially strong when told through the voice over account of Steve who offers his versions of the story he’s trying to tell, and eventually the stories he ultimately writes. He writes about Nathaniel, who lives on the streets but who went to Julliard. Researching Nathaniel's life story proves to be a fascinating task, as Steve relies on Nathaniel’s sister to help fill in the missing pieces of his story and help him better understand the man who stole his attention and ultimately changes his life.
About twenty minutes into the film we’re offered a glimpse of who Nathaniel was as a young man, such as his determination to play the Cello and his love for the sound. Nathaniel focused only on music - even when, as his sister put it, “the whole world was changing around him”. The flashbacks are short and simple, providing just enough information. Steve’s fascination grows with every encounter as he watches Nathaniel lose himself to the music.
Furthermore, one of Steve’s readers is so moved by Nathaniel’s story that she sends her cello for him to play. In a moving and memorable scene where Nathaniel plays the cello for the first time in years, you have a real sense of Director Joe Wright’s (“Atonement” & “Pride and Prejudice”) poetic touch. In fact, the scenes with music are perhaps some of the best moments. The way Wright shares the profound and different impact the music has on those who hear it (specifically Steve and Nathaniel here) is so wonderfully done that to describe it would only take away from the experience of watching music come to life.
As Steve’s interest and concern for Nathaniel grows, he begins to spend more time with him, seeking new bits for his stories, and eventually for himself. At one point, Nathaniel asks Steve if he thinks about writers the way he thinks about musicians. While not the most profound question, it touches on the connection between these two men. Steve’s desperation to help Nathaniel, to get him medicated, to convince him to sleep inside pushes the movie forward and Nathaniel’s resistance to change counterbalances Steve’s persistence.
With good intentions, Steve tries to give Nathaniel what he thinks is best for him. Still, Nathaniel states that he’s happy where he is, despite Steve not being able to understand why. Nathaniel wants to play his music in the street tunnels and not in the apartment Steve tries to get him to use. He says he wants to be in the tunnel where he can “hear the city sounds and not be locked off from life, locked off from the world.” Still as the movie progress, changes do occur for both men.
Of course, “The Soloist” isn’t just about a journalist who meets a homeless man who can play beautiful music. It’s a wonderfully woven story full of interconnectivity and human compassion, feeling almost fictional at times. But the knowledge that "The Soloist" is not fiction - but based on true events that surfaced in a moment - makes it all the more engaging. The film is a glimpse into a year that only touched on the beginning of something bigger. “The Soloist” isn’t only a glimpse at two men and their unexpected friendship, but also the realities of the homelessness in Los Angeles. Both elements of the film are handled very well and both are highlighted by the use of music.
Wright manages to keep the characters real, which is aided in great part by the performances and the script is wonderful as it not only explores the character’s boundaries and their steps in new directions. With an incredible performance from Downey and another powerful performance from Foxx, “The Soloist” is memorable. Great supporting efforts from Catherine Keener as Mary, Lopez’s ex-wife, confidant and editor, as well as Lisa Gay Hamilton as Jennifer, Nathaniel‘s sister help round out the film. While not a perfect film, it’s definitely worth looking into.
VIDEO: "The Soloist" is presented by Paramount Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is another excellent transfer of a recent theatrical release from the studio. Sharpness and detail are superb, as the picture appeared bright and sharp at nearly all times. A couple of minor traces of pixelation were noticed, but no edge enhancement, print flaws or other concerns were seen. Colors remained subdued, but appeared spot-on, with fine saturation and no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: Not surprisingly, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack remained a low-key affair. The largely dialogue-driven track remained forward-oriented throughout much of the track, with the surrounds only kicking in on a few occasions to deliver some minor ambience or reinforcement of the music. Music seemed rich and superbly recorded, while dialogue remained clean and clear.
EXTRAS: “Commentary by Director Joe Wright” - This is a decent commentary with information about the production, the cast and the story. There are moments where Wright says nothing, but overall he does offer a decent amount of information.
“An Unlikely Friendship: Making the Soloist” - A look at how the movie came to life beginning with the producers reading Steve Lopez’s newspaper story. With behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, this is a nice feature that offers a glimpse of what it was like bringing “The Soloist” to life.
“Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez” This is a very interesting, nearly five minute interview with the real Nathaniel Ayers and Steve Lopez, as well as Nathaniel playing some music on his cello. This sheds a new light on the two and adds a new perspective that a film never could. Worth a look to see these two men interact and talk with and about each other.
“One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles” a discussion with the director and others involved in making the film about their experience working with the people from Skid Row and LAMP and what it was like casting actual homeless people rather than extras for the film. Others also offer information about the amount of Homeless in Los Angeles and the close proximity to a completely different area of Los Angeles, as well as those who work to offer a desire for positive change for the people on the street.
Also included on the DVD are: “Beth’s Story” - a “Take Part” ad addressing a girls story of being homeless, 5 “Deleted Scenes”, and previews.
Final Thoughts: Well-acted and occasionally powerful, "The Soloist" is certainly a fine film from director Joe Wright. The DVD edition boasts very nice audio/video quality, as well as a decent selection of extras. Recommended.
The Film B+