On my trip to the States, I flew on United Airlines, which was mainly to save my company about $1,000 off the cost of airfare. It was a miserable flight both ways.
However, the saving grace of both trips was that this movie, The Soloist, was screened. I fell asleep in it the first time across, because I’d been on the plane for about 10 hours before they broke it out and I couldn’t stay away any longer, but what I saw in the first half moved me to tears.
Then I was on the flight back and, right at the tail end of all the films, they screened it again. The back half put me in tears as well. I am willing to admit that this could be due to the extreme dehydration and sleep-deprivation, but I think this movie has more than that going for it. I certainly would be keen to see it again, perhaps at the movies (it comes out next week in Australia, I believe) or certainly on DVD.
From the director of Atonement, it tells a very simple (and true) story. A journalist in Los Angeles, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), one day came across a homeless man (Jamie Foxx), Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic, hiding out near a statue of Beethoven, doing his best to scrap a tune out of a violin with only two strings.
A throwaway comment by Ayers revealed that he had attended the prestigiouis Juilliard School of Music and so Lopez investigates further, only to find that he has a great cellist on his hands, whose mental incapacity has led him to the streets. The rest of the movie tells the story of how Lopez moves from cynical curiosity to kindness and friendship towards Ayers.
First of all, having just flown out of LA Airport, this film has some greater resonance for me. The airport – certainly the bits where I was boarding flights – feels really primitive. It’s a scumhole of a place to hang around, and looking at the smog hanging over the city, it doesn’t look much more attractive. I’m sure there are nice places, but the overall first impression is one of a crumbling city. So the graffiti and homelessness displayed in this film immediately seem realistic.
Downey Jr and Foxx both turn in great performances. Apparently, playing a man with a mental illness reminded Foxx of a bad drug episode in his late teens and was a struggle to play. He pulls it off beautifully, and for this non-cellist, his cello playing looked convincing.
The film offers no easy solutions to the poverty. There’s not a standard Hollywood ending, or even a Shine moment, where Ayers returns to his former life. In fact, it’s very much a work in progress, and we feel like it’s still going on in real life with the real guys – beyond the timeframe captured in this film. But two things really made this film stand out:
1. It’s a film about human kindness. I know when I was younger, I was attracted to films with dark themes, and I certainly have sat through some films that start out in a bright-lit places, only to drag their audiences into the depths. But it’s so much rarer (and for me, nowadays, so much more inspiring) to see a film that starts in the depths and heads for bright places. So, for me, the trajectory of these men – both of whom inspire each other in different ways – was beautiful to behold.
2. But none of this would really have worked without a nod to the soundtrack. I was a bit put off this film when I first saw the trailer a few months ago, because the artwork and the music used on the trailer were much more grungy and poppy, with only a nod to classical music with a bit of a Bach Cello Suite (which I thought was odd for a film about a guy who played the cello).
But that was just the trailer guys trying to broaden the appeal of the film. Ladies and gentlemen, this soundtrack is nearly all Beethoven, as arranged fairly cleverly by Dario Marianelli. But not just any Beethoven – it’s my favourite Beethoven. It’s like they read my mind and picked out every piece of Beethoven that I loved and put it into this film, just for me to be taken out of my horrible United Airways flight.
In flashbacks to a young Nathaniel, we first see that he loves Beethoven and has taught himself the cello part to Beethoven’s 3rd Eroic Symphony – without doubt, my favourite Beethoven symphony.
But then it got even better. In the highly dramatic moment when Ayers is first given a new cello by Lopez, he pulls it out – and there is a certain suspense here – after all, what do you play when you haven’t played the cello in years? He begins to play Beethoven’s most spiritual piece of chamber music – the famous slow …
[Sorry, just had a moment of excitement – the unit upstairs in our apartment block started yelling out that they had a fire and Rachel came in to get me – so I’ve just been downstairs for five minutes with the kids and Rachel out the front. But it was only a barbecue that got a bit out of hand and they put it all out. So that’s all good.]
Anyway, where was I? Ayers starts to play and out comes the famous slow third movement from Beethoven’s opus 132 String Quartet. This particular movement (or section) was written when Beethoven was recovering from an illness and he named it something like “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Godhead for helping me recover from my illness”. (I know, that’s not exact – but I’ll leave you to Google it.)
It starts very slowly, one instrument and a time. In fact, it’s so low-key when it enters, it’s almost as if Beethoven was too weak to come in with something more energetic. So that’s the feeling you get as you hear Foxx play. Furthermore, at first we can only hear the cello part – but he’s hearing in his head the other three instruments. As he plays, the music soars more and more, and in a beautiful visual moment, the music literally takes us out of the squalor of Los Angeles for a moment and shows us something beautiful. But I’ll let you see it for yourself.
Then a bit later, the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony is used for the final sequence and end credits, surely one of Beethoven’s most beautiful slow movements. I’ve always had a theory that Beethoven (who himself led a pretty tortured life) wrote these slow movements to provide a comfort to himself in the dark hours. And when I heard the music in this context, providing comfort to Nathaniel Ayers in the trials that he faced, it was doubly reinforced.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it – for the last 24 hours, I’ve been getting teary every time I think about this film.
If you don’t like Beethoven, but enjoy a well-acted drama, you may not get why I like it, but you should still enjoy yourself. For you, it’s a 3 1/2 out of 5. If you love Beethoven as much as I do and you think that kindness towards others should rank a little more highly on our priorities than it does, this is really, really good stuff. 4 1/2 out of 5.