The Soloist is mainstream American filmmaking at its ambitious best—where oversized budgets meet oversized imaginations—and if it attempts to take on too many sweeping issues or employ too many cinematic tropes, it still manages to entertain, elucidate and edify. It is the story of four isolated men, each with grander delusions than the last, but only two of whom appear onscreen.
First, there is the white Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (a real journalist, but here played by Robert Downey Jr), author of a human interest column called ‘Points West’. Lopez traffics in stories of seedy streets, of the disenfranchised but not dispirited denizens of the city. In the film, he lives alone but works alongside his amicable, attractive ex-wife (Catherine Keener)—in other words, he’s frustrated. And in both fiction and reality, he meets a homeless black cellist who changes his life.
The cellist is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, portrayed without reserve (or eyebrows) by Jamie Foxx. His Ayers stumbles along both sides of the divide between genius and insanity, talking in a soft, rambling patter as his mouth tries to catch up with his mind. In both art and life, Ayers dropped out of New York’s Julliard School because of his schizophrenia. When Lopez spots him, he has a violin with two strings and a running commentary about his favourite Romantic composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven, although not seen except in marble or plastic, provides the aural topology for The Soloist. One scene revels in the concrete majesty of the city, with sky-high shots of its snaking highways and Spanish-architecture suburbs—majesty courtesy of a Beethoven symphony. There are implicit parallels drawn between Ayers and his idol—both suffering from tragic conditions (Beethoven slowly went deaf) that obstructed the pure expression of their immense talents.
Ayers is only at peace when consuming music, brilliantly conveyed halfway through The Soloist when he sits in on a rehearsal for the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. As a hundred musicians dive into the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the screen explodes into a synesthetic sequence of light and colour.
The uninitiated might wonder how an iTunes visualization found its way into the film, but the bravura sequence distills cinema to its essence—the spatial arrangement of light through time. Moreover, it proudly appends itself to a long history of visual sound films—from Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel, Opus I (1921) and Oskar Fischinger’s Allegretto (1936) to the mid-century experimentations of Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) and John Whitney’s Catalog (1961). Like all maestros, these cine-magicians knew the exhilarating potential of their medium—its ability to stimulate the eyes and soothe the heart.
The man behind The Soloist is director Joe Wright, the most ambitious of all. Within the scripted confines of one film, he provides a loving tribute to a city, a scathing exposé of societal apathy and bourgeois pretensions, a filmic concerto for a two-hundred-year-old musician, and a bond between two men who are able to save each other from the ravages of life. Such an outsized endeavour, in any art form—be it the words of Steve Lopez, the notes of Nathaniel Ayers, or the images of Joe Wright—demands your admiration, your attention and the price of admission.