The Soloist is based on a book written by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. The book was based on a series of columns the writer assembled involving his relationship with a street musician he happened upon while searching for material. Lopez was touched by the musician, Nathaniel Ayers, who was playing a violin with only two remaining strings. Still he was able to produce music that made the writer do a double take and begin to wonder what he was doing out on the street. Ayers’ ramblings made it immediately obvious that the man was suffering from mental illness. Their first contact revealed that the street performer was once a student at Juilliard. Lopez took a personal interest in the story, resulting in a series of columns that got him a bit of attention and a personal relationship with Nathaniel Ayers. When he finds out that Ayers was a classically trained cellist, his column ends up providing a nice cello for the musician to play. Lopez attempts to use the instrument as a way to coax Ayers inside and off the street. He exposes him to music instructors in the hopes of cultivating his talent more completely. Together they grow, in a way.
There really isn’t much more of a story than that. Credit director Joe Wright for not attempting to add the usual Hollywood flares in an attempt to make the film more of a commercial success. The story is very true to the real life events and never attempts the usual over the top approach that has become trendy in Hollywood today. Unfortunately, while the decision might have been an honorable one, it might not have been the right one for the film. It did rather poorly at the box office, pulling in a little over $30 million, which didn’t even cover the budgets costs. You have to look at this one strictly as a character study, because you won’t find a satisfying enough story in the film. It just kind of sits there and never really develops into any kind of cohesive form. It’s obviously the product of a series of loosely related pieces of work. We get the idea that Lopez is moved by this man and that he decides at some sacrifice to get involved, but where is the whole thing going? Again, they decide to forego the warm and fuzzy Hollywood ending that wraps things up in a nice tidy bow for everybody. Most of the story hasn’t been told; the relationship is, apparently, ongoing. Perhaps the story needed a proper ending before making its way to a movie.
The one thing you simply can’t fault here is the acting. Everything else about this film is completely overshadowed by the performances of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx. If not for their incredible portrayals here, the film would be a snooze fest, indeed. For most of you it still won’t be enough, but if you’re patient enough to enjoy a film simply to watch a couple of masterful performances, you will be rewarded here. Foxx literally transforms himself here into the off kilter world of Nathaniel Ayers. We see both the genius that peeks through the madness and the madness itself, complete with all of its struggle and complications. Foxx resists the urge to overplay his hand and provides a startling image of the workings of this man’s mind. It must have been disturbing for the real Ayers to watch. It just appears as though Foxx caught all of those little nuances that make you completely buy into the role. It’s hard to think of Robert Downey, Jr. as anything approaching sympathetic, but if Hollywood had an award for comeback players, Downey would be right there in the running. After his highly publicized legal problems, he has done a remarkable job of not only rehabilitating himself, but his career as well. Suddenly there’s a brilliant actor underneath all of that smugness and bad boy attitude. Downey has finally decided to grow up, and his own maturity has made such a caring character possible, where it was not five years ago. Now we get films like Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. Downey shows the world there’s hope for even the most unsympathetic of pariahs. For every Heath Ledger, whose life and career get cut tragically short by their own demons, Downey reminds us that it is possible to not only overcome them, but to beat them into a pulpy submission.. And so a very mediocre film is transformed because a director had the good sense to get out of the way of his two leads and just let them deliver. Unfortunately, it likely won’t translate into any better home video success than it did at the box office. Too bad, really. This one could have been a contender, and Jamie Foxx deserves honest Oscar consideration for this one.
The Soloist is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 VC-1 codec. This is a very natural style film made mostly in the bowels of L.A.’s famous Skid Row. There’s a lot of rather bright sunlight here, and it makes for an overexposed image that washes away much of the high definition’s detail. However, when lighting is more controlled, the level of detail as well as a superior contrast make for a finer image. Nothing jumps out at you. Colors are pretty much natural and a little gritty. Black levels are pretty much average. The whole image is intended to offer an ultra realistic look rather than a stunning visual presentation. It looks pretty good, likely as good as at the box office.
The Dolby TrueHD Audio track doesn’t need to do all that much. This is a very dialog driven film. The presentation captures the actors’ nuances very well. There aren’t really much in the way of ambient sounds or f/x. You’d think more could have been done to open up the street scenes, but they come off nearly as claustrophobic as Ayers considered the inside of an apartment. Where the whole thing shines is in the presentation of the music. The cello is a very rich sounding instrument, and it is reproduced here with nice realism. I’m kind of used to the sound as my wife is a cellist. It’s also been my favorite instrument to write for. Aficionados of the instrument won’t be disappointed in the dynamic range it is represented with here.
An Unlikely Friendship – Making The Soloist: (19:37) (HD) The piece looks at shooting on the streets of Skid Row and explains how actual homeless people were used as extras to provide better authenticity. Cast and crew talk about the story and these two characters in particular. You also meet the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers.
Kindness, Courtesy, And Respect – Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez: (4:48) (HD) Spend more time with the real people here. There is some overlap footage. Notice that the real Nathaniel Ayers has porn taped to the back of his cello.
Addressing Homelessness In L.A.: (9:45) (HD) A look at the issue of homelessness.
Juilliard – The Education Of Nathaniel Ayers: (4:08) (HD) Sounds pretty much like an ad for the prestigious school. There’s a touching story of Nathaniel and Yo Yo Ma meeting after a concert. Apparently they knew each other while both were at the school.
Beth’s Story: (2:02) (HD) A PSA.
Deleted Scenes: (SD) (9:49) There are 5 or the handy dandy play all feature
Hollywood loves doing these kinds of films. Usually they screw it up with a lot of preaching and elements designed to bring out your guilt. That might be why so many people stayed away from this film. I will tell you that the extras certainly bring that element to the table, but the film wasn’t designed to do that. You’ll get so caught up in the performance that you won’t have time for the typical guilt trip that’s too often forced down your throat. Look beyond the trend and you’ll have a chance to actually enjoy this one. No one is more sensitive than I am to message films. This really isn’t about any of that in spite of what the extras here try to tell you. If you don’t want a sermon, just stay away from the bonus features, but don’t stay away from the film itself. There were real homeless people used. I wonder if they got a screening of the film or not. By the way, if the film intended to do something about homelessness, it must be working. Each time we’re given a figure about the number of homeless, it goes down. In the extras the number is 80,000, then 75,000, finally 68,000. The film’s postscript says “There are 90,000 homeless on the streets of greater Los Angeles”.