The Soloist is ‘based on a true story’ and the book by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez entitled: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, which is exactly the sort of thing I’d race past in Waterstones. (Well, dawdle past, but while picking up my speed a bit; I’m not really a racer.) I didn’t have high hopes for the film either. With a book title like that, why would I? Oh boy, I even thought, it’s going to be one of those uplifting friendship movies accompanied by emancipating, emotionally soaring music and you know what? I would have been totally, 100 per cent spot-on (as usual!) if only I hadn’t been so entirely wrong. The Soloist is a fantastically decent, serious, intelligent and moving film about what most would refer to as ‘mental illness’, but may well just be a different way of being. And this distinction is rather the film’s point. Anyway, it all just goes to show, I suppose, that you can’t tell a book by its cover unless it has ‘Dan Brown’ on it, in which case you probably can.
Now, down to business. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) this stars Robert Downey Jr as Mr Lopez, one of those journalists who, on dead days, shows us all up by actually going out to find stories rather than staying put and doing an Ocado shop. He is quite creepy in this way. So, out searching one day, he stumbles across Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless guy with all his belongings piled up in a shopping trolley and dressed in layer upon layer of clothes that aren’t really clothes; just remnants of clothes. Cue violins? Just the one. Nathaniel is playing a battered, two-stringed violin yet is getting some strangely beautiful and affecting music out of it. Nathaniel, it turns out, is obsessed by Beethoven. Steve’s curiosity is piqued. ‘Hey,’ he thinks, ‘I could get a column out of this.’ (‘Hey,’ I’d have thought, ‘I hope I remembered to order cat food.’) Steve eventually discovers that Nathaniel was an exceptionally gifted cellist who once studied at the famous Juilliard School in New York but suffered a mental breakdown and had to drop out. Nathaniel is schizophrenic — the raging voices in his head, as shown via flashbacks, meant he could not perform in an orchestra — but not Hollywood schizophrenic as in, say, Jim Carrey’s Me, Myself & Irene which, surely, marked a new and profoundly dispiriting low in portraying this sort of thing on screen. I’m proud to say I walked out of that. Well, dawdled out of it, but quite crossly.
Whatever, Steve starts writing weekly about Nathaniel, and readers respond, sending in musical instruments and such like, while he further introduces him to the LA Philharmonic, arranges for him to have cello lessons, contacts his sister, who had lost track of him, and even finds him an apartment. The first half of The Soloist is poised as if Steve is going to somehow save Nathaniel, which is certainly what Steve has in mind, but then it swerves cleverly away and says this: Nathaniel doesn’t need saving. He is who he is, end of. The closest thing in spirit I can think of is probably Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, which is a similar story about two people who don’t ever properly connect — the lady in the van, like Nathaniel, is ultimately unreachable — but find acceptance through friendship all the same.
The Soloist could be corny, and it is sometimes corny. When Nathaniel first picks up a double bass after all these years, for example, it’s a little corny. The suggestion that it’s Steve who needs saving is a little corny. But it is never too corny. Wright’s direction is too deliciously smart, elegant and unsentimental for that. One moment you’re with the down-and-outs on Skid Row, and the next it’s a vast, aerial shot of a city which, from this angle, gives no indication of the broken, festering lives beneath. And the performances are knock-out. Foxx is all darting eyes, evasive body language and conversation that isn’t so much conversation, as a kind of improvised, abstract riffing — you’re expected to work hard to extract the sense — while Downey looks like a man who has known the crazies, as he has. And, as for Beethoven, it seems like he was pretty good.
The Soloist is an absorbing, illuminating film which is dramatically engaging, keeps it real, in a psychiatric sense, and is never patronising. Nathaniel’s story is a tragedy because not being able to play as part of an ensemble is a tragedy for him, and this is never glossed over or sentimentalised. It’s good, so go see it, my lovelies; go see it.