Friday, April 24, 2009

"The Soloist": Intense biography of a troubled musician, through a friend's eyes

The Soloist” creates great interest in me as it is a story of a “troubled” musician who missed his career, seen through the eyes of a vigorous, “professional person.” Most of us have heard the story now, that Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a street musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and partially rehabilitates his passion for music. The movie is adapted from the book by Lopez.

Dreamworks and Universal paired up for this ambitious effort, and British director Joe Wright brought the same kind of intensity that he had given “Atonement” two years ago. The movie has stunning punctuating aerial shots of the workaday portions of L.A. (one of an enormous cloverleaf, another of the aqueducts) with Beethoven playing. Nate’s tragedy was cause by his schizophrenia, compounded by a system that would not treat him medically properly. Wright provides us the backstory of his upbringing in Cleveland, and of the failure of his time at Julliard, with some brevity. (I think more could have been shown about what really happened at Julliard.) The flashbacks are generated by the goings on in Nate’s brain, stimulated by a tempestuous friendship with the reporter. The story is not complicated, and doesn’t require plot tricks or gimmicks, and there are none.

In boyhood, Ayers took up the cello, and his mother would say that he threw himself into music when the rest of the world around him was falling apart, as he ignored it. Then he would fall apart. Wright (and Ayers) make effective choices of music. The famous polytonal unresolved dissonance in the development section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica marks one of the flashbacks, and later the “Lydian Mode” prayer from Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet is realized with a string orchestra. Wright experiments with music (usually Beethoven, but sometimes Elgar and Bach) in transcriptions. He often plays music from the Eroica “funeral march” on the cello alone. The slow movement from the Triple Concerto is used in a reunion scene. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, actually conducts in the movie, with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth played at the end of the film when Ayers can sit through a concert with his friend.

There are comparisons to be made with other stories of missed music careers. In TheWB series “Everwood”, the teenage piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) loses an opportunity to go to Julliard because of complications in his relationship with his father. I took nine years of piano and think I would have made a run of it, but my own story became complicated not only by the ambiguities in my own personality but by the world changing around me (particularly dying McCarthyism and the Cold War).

Nate’s madness show up in some surprisingly rational ways. He hangs on to his stuff, in a roll, and carries it around with him (there are several other instruments) and it is his whole life. He takes a cello lesson that Lopez arranges (painfully) and still shows real talent. The teacher talks about stage fright, even to the point of admitting that he threw up at his first performance (I've actually heard people say that, even back at KU in the 1960s).

The movie does give some treatment of Lopez’s life as a reporter (the same messy offices as in “State of Play”), with the work and chance involved in getting a story before deadline, as well as his own personal life, and his capacity for male bonding. His own meeting with Ayers as a homeless street musician (near a tunnel) comes about as a result of his own bike accident.

I saw this on opening day, at a late afternoon show at a Tyson's Corner AMC, and the large auditorium was about one-third full.

On March 22, 2009 CBS 60 Minutes ran a news story on Lopez and Ayers, written up on another blog here.

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