It would be cliché to say that "The Soloist" hits all the right notes, but this true tale of musical genius and mental illness is a cinematic symphony. From the directing, to the acting, to the dialogue, to the sound track, to the editing, to the special effects, the entire film artistically presents a person who both scares and informs us. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) with the adapted screenplay by Susannah Grant (Charlotte's Web, Erin Brockovich), the film is based on the autobiographical book by Steve Lopez.
A columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a man whose inability to have relationships has isolated him. Divorced and neglecting his relationship with his son, Lopez portrays himself as a gifted writer who as a person has lost his way. Looking for a topic for his column about life in LA, Lopez happens upon a homeless man playing a sweet violin. His curiosity is compounded when he notices that he is playing with only two strings. Striking up a conversation, it is obvious that the man is mentally ill when he expresses his thoughts in a word salad that tosses his life before him, but in his garbled words, he also claims to have been a student at Julliard. When researching this claim, Lopez finds that Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) is telling the truth. But his instrument was not the violin - it was the viola.
Like most people who develop a schizophrenic disorder, Ayers was in high school when he started hearing voices. Fearing his own sister is trying to poison him, Ayers' paranoia compels him to take his viola and descend into the tunnels of LA. One of 90,000 homeless people living in the City of Angels, the majority of whom are struggling with mental illness, Ayers makes a dangerous bed for himself among them.
Though Lopez' wife Mary (Kathleen Keener) accuses him of only using Ayers for his own advancement, the truth is that their mutual isolation compels their wounded souls to unite in a way that heals them both. It is not that mental illness can be cured by love, but rather the need of every person for love and belonging responds to the healing influence of a friend. In the end, it is this love that brings the other relationships in Ayers' life back into focus and alignment.
One of the cinematic techniques the film attempts is to not only allow us to hear the voices within Ayers' head, but also to portray the inner vision he has when enraptured by music. To do the latter, the film creates an electronic dance of color rhythmically filling the darkness. Since it is true that some musical geniuses see sounds, this is not as trippy as it might at first appear.
"The Soloist" is an insightful film presenting the life of a mentally ill musical genius. As such, it helps us gain understanding not only into the life of a homeless person struggling with mental illness, but also into the passion of a musical genius.
1. The world in which the mentally ill live is oriented around social services and mental health clinics like LAMP. Do you agree with this solution? If not, what would you suggest?
2. The power of music to move the human soul is stronger in some than in others. How do you see, feel, hear and experience music?
3. The relationship healing that Lopez experiences with his wife he credits directly to the effect of being a friend of Ayers. Have you experienced healing in any of your relationships? If so, how?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com