I have been waiting for The Soloist for a few months now and this past evening I watched it here in San Francisco in a mostly empty theater, admittedly the last show of the night on a Wednesday, but this is a film that should be playing to packed houses.
I learned about The Soloist by listening to an interview by Terry Gross with Steve Lopez, the journalist who’s articles and then book (The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music) were the basis of the film.
The film stars my favorite actor, Robert Downey Jr as Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathanial Ayers, the homeless musician whose story forms a core of the film. I say a core becuase this is a film with at least two other stories in many ways equally important. The obvious other story is that of Steve Lopez, a writer in the dying newspaper industry, divorced from his wife who is, however, still his boss and his struggle with telling Nathanial’s story and being his friend while also in many ways benefiting from telling that story. He wins an award in the film and as a viewer of the film I was uncomfortably reminded that the film itself is, in some ways, exploiting Nathanial’s story.
Which leads me to the third story which is key to the film and to why it is a Participant Media production, the plight of the homeless in LA and by extension throughout the US and the world. I’ve written about the corosive impact of the homeless or more specifically trying to at times ignore the homeless has on myself. Participant Media is Jeff Skoll’s business, they were the producers of The Inconvient Truth and Syriana. When they make a film they do so with a mission and a purpose behind it, their films are intended to both entertain and to inspire participation and action.
As an outside observer, albeit one with lots of friends with associations with Jeff Skoll and his foundation, I greatly admire the Participant Media business model – doing good in no small part as a result of making money. They are harnassing the great power of capitalism and Hollywood to serve additional purposes, but do so while making entertaining films – at least for the most part.
But getting to the heart of the matter, why do I add The Soloist to We Live In Public as my second great film of 2009?
First this is a film which great benefits from being seen in a first run, top notch theater. Visually it has a crisp and specific look, though a few scenes are more light show visualizations than traditional film and the visual style of fluid, not fully realistic but I thought effectively representative of the subject of the film. But where being in a great theater adds most richly to The Soloist is in the music of the The Soloist. This is classical music done well and creatively. All of the cello parts are played by Ben Hong of the LA Philharmonic who had to play in three different styles during different parts of the film.
Second this is a film that confronts ugliness in our cities, an ugliness that we all to often avoid and ignore, but does not do so in a simple manner. The homeless in the film are characters, are shown as humans not caricatures and are shown in a range of human emotions – love, happiness, sorry and yes at times violence. But the film depicts all of this with a clarity rarely seen in films – fiction or documentaries. And it does not offer any simple answers or solutions – Steve Lopez’s actions are not morally pure, Nathanial Ayers is not simply mentally ill, the effects of Lopez’s stories (and I’m sure of this film) will resonant for years but unless they help spark structural changes in our cities and health care (and employment and more) they won’t have any easy answers either. Helping one man singled out by a journalist across a range of mediums would be the most traditional of Holywood stories, helping address structural problems in our cities is far harder.
In short though reviews have been mixed, my verdict is clear, this is a film well worth seeing and pondering and I hope it inspires many different people to do small (and a few people large) steps to help address the problems that far, far too many people face in our country (and for that matter around the world).
For me the telling statistic among many was in the end titles of the film, that in the greater LA area there are over 90,000 homeless people. That is nearly two times as many people as the nearly 50,000 who live in my hometown of Oak Park, IL where I grew up.
Or to put it another way, the homeless in LA could have replaced everyone I knew as a child, as well as the 1000’s of strangers in every home or apartment for miles all around my house with nearly two homeless people. A couple for every person I knew or met on the street.
A daunting and I find depressing perspective.