On April 17, 2005, Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez published the first article in a series about a homeless musician he'd recently met, 54-year-old Nathaniel Ayers. The Soloist, based on a book by Lopez of the same name, chronicles the unlikely story of these two men's pilgrimage, a journey into the darkness of mental illness lit by the flickering flames of friendship.
It begins with a chance encounter.
Things are not going well for Lopez. A head injury from a bicycle accident has rendered the journalist disoriented and discouraged. Another round of layoffs at his newspaper looms. His writing seems stymied, and his tense relationship with his ex-wife, Mary Weston, remains, well, tense—a problem not helped by the fact that she is also his editor at the Times.
Then Lopez hears the sweet strains of a violin issuing from ... somewhere ... as he walks out of his downtown office one day. Following his ears, Lopez locates the source: a flamboyantly dressed African-American man coaxing beautiful strains of Beethoven—in front of a statue of Beethoven—out of the last two strings of his graffiti-covered violin. Beside him, a shopping cart holds all of his worldly possessions.
How, Lopez wonders, could a man of such obvious talent wind up on the streets? The answer, which Lopez gleans from Nathaniel's rapid-fire narration of his life, is that he had once been a promising student at Juilliard before mental illness cut short his musical dreams.
The days and weeks that follow find the pair forging a complex friendship as Lopez seeks to unravel more of Nathaniel's story—and to help him move from homelessness to hope.
Unlike the tidily cheerful endings of so many Hollywood movies, however, Lopez learns—through blood and sweat and tears—that his best intentions can't guarantee that Nathaniel will ever find release from the torments of his schizophrenia. But Lopez also discovers that true faithfulness doesn't require fixing his friend. Simply being a friend is what matters as they traverse the dramatic ups and downs of Nathaniel's tragic, yet mysteriously grace-infused sojourn on the mean streets of L.A.
The Soloist paints a realistic, gritty picture of how difficult it is to address the interconnected issues of homelessness and mental illness. When he first meets Nathaniel, Lopez is drawn to the man's obvious talent and the way music transports him spiritually (more on that in a minute) to a place Lopez says he's never been. And as Lopez gets more and more involved in Nathaniel's life, the journalist naturally longs to see his friend freed from his schizophrenia.
But the steps Lopez takes to help Nathaniel are tripped up by the musician's antipathy toward getting off the streets and getting psychiatric attention. Thus, the film poses a thorny question: How do you help someone who desperately needs help, but won't accept it?
It's a question without a neat answer. While we as moviegoers are conditioned to expect dramatic, redemptive conclusions, The Soloist offers something else entirely. Nathaniel doesn't get well, per se, and he continues to have a hard time accepting Lopez's help. Initially, Lopez believes that involuntarily committing him to a psychiatric ward is what Nathaniel needs most. But by the film's finale, Lopez's ex-wife, Mary, helps the writer see that what matters is being a friend to Nathaniel, even if a permanent "fix" remains unlikely.
As it recounts this story, The Soloist poignantly highlights the lives of Los Angeles' estimated (by the movie) 90,000 homeless residents. Much of the film revolves around a mission called Lamp Community that provides care and shelter for homeless people, many of whom suffer from mental illness. Along the way, the film also tries to help audiences understand what schizophrenia might feel like. Accordingly, we're privy to the confusing, condemning cacophony of voices that Nathaniel hears when he gets anxious.
I should note here that just because Lopez fails to find a magic solution (and that in itself can be seen as positive since it gives a realistic image of what usually happens in real life), he still finds many other ways to tangibly help Nathaniel, including reconnecting him with his sister, Jennifer. He searches for Nathaniel at several of the city's hospitals when he disappears. He introduces him to a musician named Graham Claydon from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, with the help of Lamp Community, he gets him an apartment.
Lopez's regular columns in the newspaper prompt one elderly reader to give Nathaniel her cello (which was his first instrument). Lopez arranges for the cello to be stored at Lamp Community and encourages Nathaniel to go to the mission. Nathaniel begins playing his cello regularly for the homeless people at Lamp.
A huge sign at Lamp Community displays the verse, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). The man who runs the shelter is a generous, committed and determined advocate for the homeless. Because the camera so often focuses on the phrase "gift of God," it made me feel that the filmmakers were subtly trying to help us see the homeless as just that. Everyone has dignity and purpose, no matter how well they fit (or don't fit) into society's definition of worth.
Nathaniel seemingly comes from a Christian background. His mother tells him, "You know what I hear when you play your music? I hear the voice of God." In an anxious moment, Nathaniel quotes the Lord's prayer. A recurring theme is that music is a form of grace that has a mysterious, supernatural component. To illustrate this during one of Nathaniel's street performances, doves fly from beneath a freeway tunnel and ascend far above the city, as if moving toward heaven. Lopez believes Nathaniel experiences something akin to the divine in music, and the reporter recognizes his own deep desire for a similar experience.
Though Nathaniel has some Christian roots, in his confusion he also starts to describe Lopez as "his god." Lopez initially responds sarcastically, telling Nathaniel that if he does what Lopez says, he'll grant him eternal life. Later, though, Lopez wisely says that he can neither save Nathaniel nor wants to be worshiped by him. That part of the storyline highlights the reality that Lopez can't, in fact, save Nathaniel from his schizophrenia.
Elsewhere, we hear the Christian hymn "May the Circle Be Unbroken." We see an image of Jesus on the cross outside a church. Graham Claydon is presented as a well-meaning Christian, but his attempts to witness to and pray for Nathaniel are insensitive. The woman who donates her cello says that she's praying for Nathaniel's health. A humorous scene involves Lopez sarcastically asking a representative of a local atheist group how he and his peers can possibly be united by unbelief.
Several homeless women wear revealing clothes. Mary tells Lopez that their college-age son has a "pre-gay" roommate. Lopez's coffee mug bears a rude line about male anatomy. A mentally ill woman mentions "call girls" with "diseases." Nathaniel drapes a purple bra over his cello.
Nathaniel claims he's been mugged 14 times. At one point, we witness a crime scene with a huge pool of blood. In a moment of panic, Nathaniel pulls out a bed leg with nails in it to defend himself. When he learns that Lopez wants him to get psychiatric help, Nathaniel attacks the reporter, hitting him several times and threatening to "gut him like a fish."
Swerving to miss a raccoon, Lopez topples over the handlebars of his bike and smacks his head on the asphalt, causing a bloody wound on his face. Nathaniel gets hit by a car. In a flashback, Nathaniel sees a burning car roll by his house in Cleveland in the mid-'60s. Police are shown roughly arresting homeless people on skid row.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words. About 10 s-words. Characters misuse Jesus' and God's names close to 10 times (including one use of "g--d--n"). We hear half-a-dozen or more uses of such words as "h---," "d--n," "b--ch" and "p---ed."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lopez drinks frequently at home, usually wine. After a particularly discouraging encounter with Nathaniel, he downs several shots at a bar. At a citywide gala honoring Lopez for his work among the homeless, Mary gets very drunk.
People smoke cigarettes. Several scenes show the homeless on skid row smoking crack pipes. A woman in group therapy says she doesn't like the way lithium silences the voices that comfort her. A scene shows festering wounds caused by drug injections on the arms and neck of a person who's died of an overdose.
Other Negative Elements
Lopez tries to get rid of raccoons in his yard by using coyote urine—which, predictably, ends up all over him. In another scene, Lopez needs to provide urine for medical tests, and we watch from above the stall door as he misses the cup, urinates on the floor and then slips and falls. (Nudity is not visible.) A man sitting on a toilet in another stall can be seen (and heard) from above as well. Lopez is shown in his boxers.
Watching the trailer for The Soloist might make you think it plays in the same concert hall as so many other music-oriented dramas have before. And there are some superficial similarities to those typically inspirational anthems. But The Soloist actually has more in common with A Beautiful Mind and The Pursuit of Happyness than August Rush or Mr. Holland's Opus.
It examines the topics of mental illness and homelessness. And it goes about that task with documentary-like realism, coupled with extraordinary tenderness. The result is a film that packs an emotional wallop: I sat quietly afterwards, absorbing the rolling credits while feeling wrung out by the trials and travails of both Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers.
And yet, paradoxically, I also felt hopeful. Hopeful that the simple act of friendship can make a difference in someone's life, even if I'm unable to offer solutions for a friend's problems. Lopez desperately wanted to fix Ayers, to help him unleash his musical gift to the full. But it turns out that that's not really the point. Loyalty, faithfulness and determination to keep trying, no matter what—those are the values that matter most, according to this film.
Producer Russ Krasnoff was originally drawn to the story because he was so moved by Lopez's articles. "I can't remember ever reading newspaper articles that so moved me like those Steve wrote about Nathaniel," he said. "Here was a story about two men, one who is troubled and who society says is broken, and another who is seen as very successful. Yet Steve discovers in Nathaniel a passion he will never know. I was intrigued because Steve was not just investigating a story about an unusual homeless man; he was looking deeper into the motivations and rationales for all our lives."
Co-producer Gary Foster adds, "We felt that in the right hands this could become a film about love, about inspiration, about the power of how people can help each other. That's what we wanted."
And that's what the filmmaking team behind The Soloist has delivered. Its depiction of life on the street (including some harsh profanity and images of drug use and drinking) is raw at times. And families should take full note of that. But it's from this unexpected source—Lopez describes L.A.'s skid row as a "lost colony of broken, helpless souls"—that a life-altering friendship emerges, one in which two very different and differently troubled men find hope, joy and a renewed sense of purpose in each another's company.
For a mostly melancholy film lacking a happy Hollywood ending, that's a pretty amazing message.