The Soloist (2009): The Issue of Authenticity

The True Story

Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was born 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio.  He started his music education in the public schools.  He would be lucky to get a violin, be it one or two strings.  Music was his love and he showed his talent at a young age.  Ayers later went to Ohio University and Ohio State University. He had also played many times at the Aspen Music Festival.  His musical achievement culminated in a scholarship that sent him to Juilliard in New York City in 1970 when he was 19.

Ayers started with the double bass, later changed to the cello.  He was one of the few African-American students at the prestigious music school at that time.  Unfortunately, he only stayed there for two years.  Stricken with paranoid schizophrenia, Ayers had to drop out and return home to Cleveland.  With his talent and the training he was getting, if he had stayed on, he would have no problem getting a spot in any major orchestra in the country.  But his mother could find no solution for his worsening condition.  He was in and out of hospitals, receiving shock treatment as a last resort.

Ayers later drifted off to California and ended up living on the streets of L.A.  When L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez found him, it was at Pershing Square, where a statue of Beethoven found a permanent home.  Passing by, Lopez heard classical music, and later discovered that it was played on a 2-string violin by a homeless man whose possessions were all that a shopping cart could hold.  That was the beginning of their friendship and the re-discovery of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.

Lopez not only got his story, he had introduced back into society from the fringe of homelessness, the talented Mr. Ayers.  Based on this story, he went on to write the book The Soloist.  The members of the L.A. Philharmonic also offer help, letting Ayers in to listen to their rehearsals at the Disney Concert Hall, giving him lessons and playing with him the music he has loved.  As Lopez describes, music is Ayers’ medicine, these musician friends his doctors, the Disney Concert Hall his hospital.

Ayers’ real life story has been succinctly captured in a short 12 minutes documentary on CBS 60 Minutes.  From the short clip, Ayers’ gentleness, grace, articulation and musical talent readily shine through.  These few minutes’ glimpses into the person and talent of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers just show us that any story on him would be most authentically done by Mr. Ayers himself, and any feature film deservedly be a documentary.

The Movie

The authentic transposing of Ayers’ unique personality, his musical talent and techniques onto screen proves to be a challenge.  With all due respect to the excellent actors Jamie Foxx as Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez, the real life story just doesn’t transpose that effectively.  Ironically, the problem might well be that they are actors.  I was watching a life acted out.  Director Joe Wright has imbued the characters and scenes with colors and dramatic effects that at times, masking the poignancy with contrived overtones.

Depicting classical music talents on screen is difficult unless the actor is proficient in the same instrument.  I remember how I cringed seeing Meryl Streep ‘play’ the violin in Music of the Heart (1999).  I know Foxx is an achieved musician himself, trained in the piano but not a stringed instrument.  And I’ve heard how he had worked hard at placing his fingers on the cello to be in sync with the melody for his part in The Soloist.  Naturally, such preparation is insufficient to portray a string player of Ayers’ calibre.  The musical authenticity comes when the L.A. Philharmonic performs, but it only brings a sense of incongruence by comparison.

Director Joe Wright’s works include the passionate Atonement (2007) and the adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2005).  Ironically, in The Soloist, a movie where compassion and the healing power of music should be in the forefront, he falls short in depicting the heart and soul of Ayers’ story.  Wright has brought forth a hip flick, surprisingly dispassionate and two-dimensional.  The music of Beethoven could have been used more poignantly overall.  (I can’t help but think of Wright’s other work Atonement, where the rhythm and sound of just a typewriter can be so riveting.)   Also, maybe it’s a sign of our time, but I was disappointed that in a crucial scene, Beethoven’s affective power is being reduced to simply digital, visual effects.

With all its best intentions, the movie tries to touch on too many issues: homelessness, mental illness, the cure for mental illness, religious street ministry, journalism, career and marriage, … just to name a few.  I once heard a nurse say after feeling someone’s pulse: “Irregular heartbeat, all over the place.”  Now why do I have that memory while watching this movie?

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what is lacking.  One of the better film versions of classical musicians plagued with mental illness is Hilary and Jackie (1998).  Director Anand Tucker sensitively crafted an engrossing story.  Emily Watson gave a superb performance in not only depicting the inner struggles but the outward musicality of the renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré.  Now, come to think of it, maybe what The Soloist lacks is such sensitive, articulate and refined artistry, in which light Mr. Ayers truly deserves to be portrayed.

~ ~ ½ Ripples