Monday, October 19, 2009

The Soloist

The Soloist is a story about homelessness. It's a story about mental illness. It's a story about friendship, and music, and family, and the power of words. It's a (true) story about a musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. and his "unlikely friendship" with a journalist from the Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez. Above all it's a story about grace.

Jamie Foxx stars as Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. is Lopez. Both give sensitive, genuine portrayals of their characters. It's directed by Joe Wright, who also directed Atonement, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Nathaniel Ayers grew up in poverty in Cleveland. He was a musical prodigy. After completing high school he attended Ohio University on a music scholarship. Then in 1970, at the age of 19, he was accepted in NYC's prestigious Julliard School of Music, one of the few African American students there.

Ayers was trained to play the double bass but taught himself to play cello, trumpet, violin, drums, and harmonica. Every indication was that Nathaniel Ayers was bound for a lifelong career in a famous orchestra. But two years into his time at Julliard, something went wrong. The pressure of studies started getting to him. Known to be a fastidious dresser, he began to show up for class disheveled and unbathed. His grades took a nosedive. He grew angry and confrontational. He started hearing voices in his head. He talked incessantly and drew graffiti all over his living quarters.

One night Ayers snapped. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and given heavy doses of Thorazine. It didn't help. They gave him shock treatments, which only frightened him and turned him into a zombie. He ended up back in Cleveland, then drifted to the streets of California, lugging battered musical instruments with him. Finally Ayers settled in the streets of LA, sleeping in the tunnel under 2nd Street, beating the rats away with drumsticks, and playing his violin for the pigeons and anyone else who happened by.

One day in 2005, Steve Lopez heard Ayers playing his violin in Pershing Square next to the statue of Beethoven. And thus began the relationship that led to Lopez writing articles for the Times, then a book, a piece on the CBS show 60 Minutes, and this movie, The Soloist.

Watching the movie was an experience on several levels. For one thing, it's just an amazing story about an amazing person. Deeper than that, it moved me to look at homelessness in a new light. I tend to be dismissive of, impatient with, and offended by these people. Through the eyes of Steve Lopez, I saw them as fellow human beings who happened to have not had some of the advantages I did, who are suffering and desperate and need help.

Deeper still, The Soloist reminded me that I am the desperate one in need of grace.

At one point in the movie, Lopez tells his ex-wife of the profound experience of something that he's had in his relationship with Ayers. "What is it?" he asks. She says, "Sounds like grace."

How right she is. Grace is the connecting spark between someone who is desperate and someone else who cares no matter what. That's what Lopez experienced as Nathaniel Ayers - initially just the subject of a newspaper column - soon became a friend. And that's why The Soloist is a fresh bath in the gospel.

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