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Movie Review: 'The Soloist' boasts pitch-perfect performances

Lane Blevins • May 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

To get to the meat of what I want to say about “The Soloist,” I feel it is pertinent to give some context as to my own experiences with classical music.

Before ever deciding I wanted to take seriously the pursuit of writing and filmmaking as a career, I went through East Tennessee State University for a bachelor’s degree in music education.

At ETSU I was blessed to spend 14 semesters in the acclaimed Chorale ensemble under whom I consider the greatest choral conductor on the planet — not for his technical skill (which he has in spades) but because of his complete dedication to showing his students how music can make them transcend the mundane and experience something special, how it can make them feel involved in something truly beautiful.

Through international travel and performances of the highest caliber music at world class venues, I was able to experience emotion that I never knew I was capable of feeling.

This concept — the transcending power of music — is a major theme in “The Soloist,” which gives it high marks in my opinion.

“The Soloist” is about Nathaniel Ayers Jr., a Juilliard School dropout who descends into schizophrenia in his sophomore year and spends the next three decades running as far from his demons as he can.

Eventually, he winds up on L.A.’s infamous skid row amongst the disenfranchised and broken.

He scuttles around the streets of Los Angeles pushing everything he holds dear in a shopping cart. Stopping to play his busted, two-string violin every so often, he carries on full dialogues aloud to himself.

He eventually catches the attention of a jaded L.A. Times columnist named Steve Lopez, who is struggling to find a worthwhile story. In short, Lopez’s relationship with Nathaniel begins as an exploitative one. He wants to help Nathaniel, but only so much as to make an interesting story.

As their relationship deepens, however, Lopez becomes uncomfortable with being such an important figure in the mentally fragile Ayers’ life.

But by the end of the film, Ayers has not only helped Lopez with an amazing story, but has also helped him reconnect with life and shown him the complete power of music.

The performances in this film are pitch perfect. Robert Downey Jr. (who plays the real-life journalist David Lopez) continues on his comeback rampage, thrilling audiences and reminding every one why he is worth reacceptance in the film world, having paid back with interest his pound of flesh for sins committed earlier in his career. When I hear Downey is involved with a picture, I immediately mark it on my list of films to see.

Jamie Foxx also continues to show his chops as a dramatic actor. His portrayal of Nathaniel Ayers Jr. is a subtle and toned-down Jamie Foxx, one that makes you altogether forget his comedic roots.

I must add that the film does have its blemishes. Many times the narrative feels choppy and rushed. Also, to my eye, the story about Downey’s David Lopez feels malnourished. By the end of the film, I didn’t feel there had been enough told about Lopez’s personal demons to justify the redemption he finds in his friendship with Ayers.

For these reasons, I wonder how successfully “The Soloist” will play to audiences who have no interest in classical music. The music is what gives the film its character, and its themes of the power of classical music could be lost on some, leaving not enough film left for an enjoyable experience for these audience members.

I particularly loved a sequence in which Lopez arranges an opportunity for Ayers to sit in on a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony.” It is filmed in such a way that we hear and see the music as Ayers experiences it — with a choreographed display of color and sound that is an accurate portrayal of an intense listening experience.

I would recommend this film most to those who have even a little appreciation for classical music. Also, people who enjoy films based on acting performance will find the cost of admission to be money well spent.

3 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx


RATED: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language

RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Lane Blevins is an aspiring filmmaker.

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