Right around the time my voice started cracking, I started playing the piano. A few scraps of sheet music and my mother’s patience were basically all I had until I started taking formal lessons with the sort of kind-eyed, joy-filled woman you’d expect to be teaching piano. I mostly wanted to play jazz, but she got me hooked on classical. Since then, music has been something that affected me deeply, the kind of thing that stops me dead in my tracks or sets me on a euphoric path. Metal, hip hop, country, baroque, cajunto. I love it all, probably even more than I love movies, but there’s definitely a great place in my fandom for any films that deal directly with music or explore music in such a meaningful way.
The Soloist is one of those films. It explores music in such an interesting way that it’s difficult to dismiss. It’s original, challenging, and experimental (although some of those experiments don’t quite work).
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writing up life experiences and getting fan mail while the investigative journalists around him complain about public taste. When he meets Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic, homeless, former Julliard musician, he finds a story that actually changes his life. Ayers moves from person of interest, to news phenomenon, to friend.
Now, I probably made that synopsis sound more hokey than the film is. It’s definitely not gritty in any way, but it doesn’t deal in the typical syrupy storyline that resolves with the homeless man becoming a millionaire and the city’s poor all getting rainbow-colored puppies after winning the lottery. The tone is somewhere in the middle with a fairly natural look at a man whose living is based off of having experiences meeting up with a person who finally challenges him to move completely out of his comfort zone. This becomes apparent early on in the relationship when Lopez has to visit LAMP (the L.A. area homeless shelter located in the heart of skid row). The film doesn’t shy away from the reality of homelessness, and it forces the audience to clench up right along with Lopez as he moves through crowds of people who have been pushed to the bottom.
In almost every respect, The Soloist is the kind of challenging, well-written, brilliantly acted film that should get major awards thrown at it. The subject matter is engrossing and meets that balance of being difficult enough to give the audience a struggle while being accessible and universal enough to carry through. The acting is some of the best you could hope for from stellar actors. Downey Jr. is subdued and sarcastic in the right measure, able to take a character that has hidden emotional weight dragging him down on a journey of releasing it by connecting to another person. Foxx is fantastic, playing a difficult role that could have easily become a caricature of mental illness – somehow he lets his Uncle Sam hat, random white face paint and glitter jacket do all of the crazy work while saving the real emotive work for his performance. The scenes between them run the gamut. Some are awkward and sweet, others are trying and violent, still others are transcendent and joyous.
Catherine Keener, as usual, delivers a fantastic performance.
It’s also a beautiful movie, blending some gorgeous shots of Los Angeles that aren’t normally shown with some of the most powerful music in the world. The film flows freely between embedding the audience in the grime and traffic clamor of the tunnels or the human sea of poverty on skid row and presenting musical scores that have transformed listeners for hundreds of years. A world of antiquity finding its place in the modern.
But there is something holding The Soloist back. Two things actually. One is its experimental nature – a movie that dares to stop the flow of the story in order to show a two-minute light show as an orchestra plays. It’s meant to be a look into how Nathaniel Ayers (a bona fide prodigy) experiences music as he sits, calm for the first time in days, listening as if praying to some unknown God. For me personally, it was a fantastic moment, but I can understand how it might appear like little more than a Windows Media Player visualization mode on steroids to some. Then there was the shot that takes us out of the tunnels, out into the water basin, and up into the sky above Los Angeles. The thought behind the shot is a fine idea – that music helps us escape the world and its pressures – but the execution is fairly lacking, and the inclusion of shots attempting to display the inner thoughts and feelings of characters is always a tricky business. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, if it had always worked, the film would be a masterpiece, but when it does fail, it’s jarring enough to shake the audience out of the experience.
The second thing holding the film back is an unconventional story structure. It doesn’t reveal the main overarching goal for Lopez in the beginning – and, now that I think about it, never really displays what his ultimate goal is – so the film becomes about the small victories with an ever-shifting goal post. First he needs to find a story before deadline, then he needs to get Nathaniel to cooperate for the story, then he has to get Nathaniel to go to the homeless shelter in order to play music there. This is the way the story had to be. It carries Lopez on a journey where even he is unsure as to how far he wants to take this new relationship. However, it does create a sort of hollow feeling, never fleshing out what the end game is for these characters. Is it enough to get Nathaniel into an apartment? Or does he need to be cured of his mental illness?
Perhaps this is a construct of the films I’m used to watching – the avalanche of stories where the homeless man teaches everyone a lesson and an anonymous donor gives him a million dollars. Where a main character sets out to achieve something and does so by the end of the credits. The Soloist is not that film. It’s stark and realistic. Even when Lopez’s story brings further attention to the homeless plight in the city, the reality of what happens when the mayor infuses more tax money into the area (the good and the brutal bad of it) is given its due credit. At the end of the day, there’s no end goal because none of the characters are quite sure of what they’re capable, but they all realize that their potential stops far short of saving the world, fixing the city, or even totally fixing each other.
The Soloist is a fine film that displays superior acting, story, and takes risks. It should be applauded for that even if it falls short from time to time. Plus, it uses music as a proper vehicle (alongside the shot selection and performances) to transport the audience into a different world. The movie itself mirrors the oddity of finding Ludvig Van Beethoven blasting from a packed-to-the-brim shopping cart or out from under a cardboard box where someone will bed down for the night. Johann Sebastian Bach is sleeping in a rundown apartment, bare mattress staring out against blank walls. It’s a unique beauty that seems out of place in a perpetually deteriorating world.