On DVD: The Soloist
I put off even watching The Soloist until it came out on DVD this month, knowing it was a film I "ought" to see (involving both classical music and journalism), and pretty sure I could imagine what kind of sentimental brew Hollywood would produce. Happily, it proved a more palatable vintage than I'd anticipated.
My reason for writing about it here here is not to criticize the film itself, though there is plenty of room to debate its portrayal of homelessness, and the emphasis of the role of the reporter, played by Robert Downey Jr., over the homeless musician he befriends, played by Jamie Foxx. I did think the film managed to tell a good story and -- though it of course targeted the tear ducts -- remain slightly above the merely predictable. (As an aside, I was struck by its odd fixation on urine, with which Downey's character keeps getting splattered).
But my main interest is the film's honest effort to illustrate what it feels like when someone who passionately loves music listens to a piece. True, the shots of flying pigeons and landscapes seen from an aerial perspective (he's soaring, get it?) hover perilously close to those once-ubiquitous video clips in which classical warhorses are illustrated with fields of flowers, Alps, and other scenic wonders. But I found it stayed just this side of the saccharine; and it also treated the music with more respect than it might have, although it did opt to arrange for string orchestra Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet. I wasn't wild about the colorful, abstract light patterns that repeated over and over to express Foxx's transports at hearing Beethoven's Third -- like those computer-generated patterns some computer playback programs can produce to accompany music -- but they were a recognizable placeholder to indicate that something intense was going on.
(read more after the jump)
I also liked that Downey's character, who didn't hear the music the same way the Foxx character did, was turned on to the music through Foxx's excitement. I seem to have a weakness for down-to-earth depictions of people hearing great music and not quite getting it, as opposed to exalted depictions of people being rooted to the spot by the Wonder Of It All: a frequent trope in film and fiction, which I have seldom encountered in real life. (Indeed, I once wrote a whole article on this subject.)
On the other hand, it could be argued that Downey's character's reaction is a typical example of classical music hagiography: it furthers the common idea that classical music is revealed to aficionados in a way not given to the mere lay listener. This is underlined by keeping Foxx's character, to some extent, an unknowable Other, a holy-fool figure, viewed respectfully, but from without (though we do get plenty of views of the voices in his head).
Still, for a film that sets out to worship at the classical music temple, this one was less treacly than many. The presence of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic added a stamp of credibility (especially since some filmmakers might have sought out a more Central-Casting type conductor: venerable, bulky, and white-maned). The film's depiction of journalism, incidentally, was in line with its depiction of music: tarted up a bit, with plenty of short cuts, but not too cloying.
What are your thoughts on The Soloist, or on other films that attempt to treat the thorny subject of classical music on screen?
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