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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?

By Anne Midgette  |  August 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Anne, I have to disagree that there was an "honest effort" to portray the experience of someone enjoying classical music. I thought the entire musical presentation was lurid and sensationalistic and the psychedelic scenes were inappropriate to what classical music is all about.

More generally, with all the wonderful rep for cello I was really disappointed that the film used so little of it, basically just some snippets of Bach presented in a mind-numbingly repetitive fashion.

From a musical perspective I was really disappointed and thought the film was a real missed opportunity.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | August 21, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

I'll sidetrack the discussion here to say that I was, indeed, "rooted to the spot by the Wonder Of It All" many years ago.

I was in college in the early '70s and came at classical music as many do, strictly through orchestral works. I had no appreciation for the voice and actually changed the radio station on those few occasions when vocal music was aired.

I was studying late one night and listening to Dennis Owens, who once had the overnight program on local WGMS. On one particular evening, he announced that, in honor of the anniversary of the birth of Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch, he would air two operatic selections. As a captive audience with nothing else to hear at that hour, I groaned and resolved to grit my way through it. The first selection was the lengthy first-act duet from Tosca, with Welitsch partnered by Richard Tucker. I was transported; I never knew opera could be this good. The second selection, a change of pace, was the long final scene from Salome. I wouldn't recommend this today for someone just getting their feet wet in opera, but, again, I was amazed at the possibilities of this art form. I have since heard at least five different Welitsch performances of the Salome finale, and no one comes close to her passion in this scene.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | August 21, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Adam Crane, now of the St. Louis Symphony, sent me as a comment this article he wrote in May for

“The Soloist” -- the Real Nathaniel?
By Adam Crane
May 12, 2009

Steve Lopez called me with a request back in September of 2005. I was the Director of Public Relations for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time, Steve is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He knows the streets of L.A. as no other and had been writing a series of columns about a homeless musician, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Steve had come across Nathaniel playing a two-string violin on those L.A. mean streets, talked with him, developed a rapport, and discovered that beneath the surface image of this homeless man was an extraordinary history.

When Nathaniel was a young man, he was enrolled at The Juilliard School as a student of the double bass. Yo-Yo Ma was studying there at the time. Nathaniel would not become friends with Ma, however, or any of his classmates; he was forced to drop out because of the terrible voices in his head. He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He eventually was given shock treatments and, after that, disappeared onto the streets.

I had read Steve’s columns and was compelled by Nathaniel's story. Because I've lived my life with music at its center – I am a cellist -- I was especially taken with his plight, and with his courage. So when Steve called with that request -- would Mr. Ayers (they refer to each other as “Mr. Ayers” and “Mr. Lopez,” I am “Mr. Crane”) be able to attend a rehearsal of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, I didn't hesitate: Yes, please come.

Since that day Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez have been a major part of my life. A community has formed around them: Nathaniel's sister Jennifer Ayers Moore, L.A. Philharmonic musicians Ben Hong, Robert Gupta and Joanne Pearce Martin, former orchestra cellist Peter Snyder, and the staff and residents of Lamp, where Nathaniel now has a home. Although I’ve since moved back to my hometown of Saint Louis , where I am director of communications for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, I've retained my L.A. cell-phone number so Nathaniel can call me, which he does on a regular basis.

We were all concerned about the impact of the “The Soloist” on Nathaniel. There is a lot I admire about the film. Director Joe Wright captures "the power of music," and makes it more than a cliché; Jamie Foxx's portrayal is mesmerizing for its accuracy and its compassion. Perhaps most importantly, the film depicts the horror and humanity of L.A.'s Skid Row in a startling fashion, and does so in such a way, I hope, to make people wake up to the reality of homelessness and mental illness in this country.

But there are aspects of this version of Nathaniel's story that I find distressingly wrong. I understand the need to adapt and streamline it in order to make an entertaining movie, but I fear audiences that haven’t read Steve’s book -- “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music”-- are going home with a distinctly skewed view of reality.

Former Philharmonic cellist Peter Snyder is misrepresented. While it’s true that a cellist from the orchestra worked with Nathaniel, Snyder is not a religious zealot, and never did he, or anyone else, force Nathaniel to perform in a recital at Walt Disney Hall Concert Hall. The book recounts an impromptu gig Nathaniel performed at a bar, but Nathaniel's well-being has always been of the highest concern to all of us. No one would have ever chosen to exploit him in such a way.

More importantly, Nathaniel is not a violent person. There is no choice the filmmakers made that is more alarming to me or unfair to Nathaniel than the scene in which Foxx physically attacks Robert Downey, Jr., in the role of Steve. Nathaniel can be extraordinarily confrontational in his language when he's having one of his bad days. But he is not violent.

In her May 5, 2008 New Yorker article, Dana Goodyear captured a bad-day conversation. Steve and Nathaniel were both in my office when the altercation occurred. Goodyear had gone to Disney Hall with Lopez, who had mentioned to her that he was worried about how his work would affect Nathaniel.

She writes, “Ayers, who, because of Lopez's columns, had been invited to the hall many times, has started turning up there unexpectedly. That morning, he was in the office of Adam Crane .... He didn't seem happy to see Lopez. He wanted to attend a rehearsal that afternoon, and Crane was struggling to explain that the rehearsal was closed…. Furthermore, Ayers wanted to go to the performance that night, but Lopez wasn't available to sit with him, and Crane had to attend to a visiting photographer from the L.A. Times.

"'What's wrong with the concert tonight?' Ayers asked. 'Have you answered my question? Why don't I listen to the concert tonight whether you're with me or not? Is that permissible?'

"'We're their guests --' Lopez began.

"'You're their guest. I'm asking you, Mr. Crane, what's wrong with seating me and then you meet up with the photographer and you meet me at intermission?'

"Finally, Crane convinced Ayers that the following day would be better. Crane typed out a schedule and handed it to Ayers: 11 A.M. concert, followed by lunch and a private lesson with Mr. Gupta, and then another concert in the evening. Ayers walked out of the office to the guard station, where he retrieved his cello case -- painted with the Dodgers' 'LA' symbol, in large white letters, and Lopez's name -- and a brown metal folding chair, on which he had written 'No Smoking.'

"Crane, seeing Ayers's unwieldy burden, offered to help him. 'No -- I think you better stay off my chair, son,' Ayers said. Then, gentling his tone, he added, 'It's a strange chair, but I found it, so I have to make do.' Crane made eye contact with Lopez and said, 'Will you call me?'

"Ayers walked outdoors, to a landing at the top of a flight of stairs. He was ready to be rid of company. 'So I'll catch you later, got something to do,' he said, not looking at Lopez.

"'Is there anything you need?' Lopez asked.

"'Naw, man, I don't need anything.'

"'I have a package for you from Jennifer.' (Jennifer is Ayers's sister, who lives in Atlanta , and is the conservator of a trust established for Ayers after the sale of the rights to his life story.)

"'Damn. That's pretty rugged. I'll tell her not to send anything to you anymore.'

"'Is something bothering you?' Lopez asked.

"'Ain't nothing bothering me, man.'

"'Can I give you a ride, with the package? It's too heavy, you can't carry it.'

"'How do you know what I can carry? I'll tell that girl Jennifer to stop bugging you with packages.'

"'It's not bugging me.'

"'Well, it's bugging somebody.'

"'I just brought this for you -- '

"'And I don't appreciate it, I suppose! Drop my pack off and cool it!' Ayers shouted. All the muscles of his face were tensed.'

"'Before I go, I want to tell you something,' Lopez said.

"'I want to tell you something. Your book sucks! O.K.?'

"'Are you bothered by the book?'

"'The book is something he's got in his office, and I put under a sink somewhere. Why are you always trying to get behind someone and squirm? Drop my pack off, and you can buzz off!'

"Lopez, backing down the stairs, said, 'I came here your friend, and I'm leaving your friend.'"

That's the dark side of Nathaniel, when the demons are raging in his head. But throughout this rant, or any of the rants we have experienced, there has never been even a hint of a threat of violence. The Nathaniel we all know may be best described in an e-mail Steve sent to me, Ben Hong and Robert Gupta following the movie premiere:

"[Nathaniel and I] spent an hour in his room, just talking about this and that. He had rolled the piano two blocks through the streets of skid row because of remodeling at Lamp village and now has it in his room. He played a bit for me. Also played flute. He was quite happy to have a guest, and pretty lucid.

“It was so real, I felt happy and relieved to be in his company and see him as he was when I first met him, scattered and brilliant and filled with humility. We had a nice chat.

“On the wall of his room are the names Hong, Gupta and Crane, repeatedly. I thank you all for your friendship with him and with me.”

It is a friendship for which I too am extremely grateful.

--Adam Crane

Posted by: MidgetteA | August 21, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I have so far avoided seeing "The Soloist," for basically the same reasons as you. I'm a professional classical musician and generally find that Hollywood treatments of what I do are about as realistic a portrayal of what I do as "Law and Order" is of police work. However, is response to your question, I did want to mention a classical movie that, while mostly conforming to the usual stereotypes, did contain one truly great scene. In the movie "Shine," when the main character is performing the Rachmaninov piano concerto at a piano competition, I felt the director captured perfectly many of the elements of what it feels like to perform under pressure. In particular, there is a great moment when the pianist suddenly, instead of hearing the notes coming out of his instrument, can only hear the clacking of the keys themselves as he depresses them; many musicians have this sort of weird "out-of-body" experience when they are playing, as they suddenly become hyper-focused on some odd peripheral element of their performance. As I said, the movie otherwise buys fully into the "holy fool" theory of classical music that you describe in your post, but this one scene is true genius IMHO.

Posted by: chombajr | August 23, 2009 11:47 PM | Report abuse

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