When newspaper columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) meets homeless, schizophrenic Juilliard-dropout Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), it is the beginning of a friendship that changes both their lives. Joe Wright's The Soloist is based on the book which chronicles the actual friendship between Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers which began in 2005.

Playing With Passion

Steve finds Nathaniel playing a two-stringed violin in Los Angeles's Pershing Square Park. At first, Steve just sees Nathaniel as a fascinating subject for his newspaper column, but as he spends time with him they develop an unlikely friendship that prompts Steve to help Nathaniel out of his homelessness. Steve discovers that Nathaniel attended Juilliard, the prestigious music school in New York, and bit by bit learns of Nathaniel's history. As a child he was a musical prodigy. He loved music and devoted all his time to playing the cello, eventually being accepted into Juilliard as one of its few African American students. But while there he developed schizophrenia and dropped out, eventually moving to Los Angeles.

When Steve first meets him, Nathaniel's goal in life is simply to get new strings for his violin. But after reading Steve's column, an elderly lady sends her cello to him to give to Nathaniel. The deal is that Nathaniel has to keep it at the Lamp Community, a foundation set up to help homeless people by offering food as well as private apartments. Steve's columns about Nathaniel begin to make a difference, and the mayor promises to allocate $50 million to help the homeless community. Steve keeps writing and trying to help Nathaniel. He arranges for him to have an apartment and also for a private cello instructor (Tom Hollander) to give him lessons.

Nathaniel is initially resistant to these provisions, and Steve wonders whether it might be better to try to force him off the streets. “Wouldn't a little arm-twisting be more humane than leaving him here on the streets in this lost colony of broken helpless souls?” When Nathaniel states, “Mr Steve Lopez is my god”, Steve tries to dissuade such talk, but then seizes his opportunity. “Alright. I am your god. And as your god I command you to be at Lamp, 2.00 pm, one week from today, for a cello lesson.” Nathaniel does show up and take the lesson, but despite everything Steve does for him to help him out of homelessness, he has no way to help him overcome his schizophrenia. The only way to do that would be medication, which Nathaniel refuses to take. The law forbids forcing medication on someone unless he is a danger to himself or others. Steve briefly toys with the idea of reporting Nathaniel for assault, so that he would be put in a psychiatric hospital and start receiving medication: “What if that's all it took for him to be well? What if two weeks of meds – a two-week window into what his life could be – changed his life, saved his life?” David Carter (Nelsan Ellis), the head of staff at the Lamp Community, warns Steve that by betraying his friendship with Nathaniel, he would destroy the only thing Nathaniel had in the world.

Although most of us aren't likely to find ourselves exactly in Steve's position, it is likely that we may face other situations in which we must risk betraying trust in order to do the right thing. In such circumstances it is important to weigh up all the consequences before taking action. Every situation is going to be different so there is no hard and fast rule. In Nathaniel's case, neither his nor anyone else's life was in jeopardy and the determining factor was Steve's judgment that Nathaniel's life needed improving. So Steve made the right decision in not creating a story to force medication on his friend. Their friendship was more important than compelling Nathaniel to conform to society's standard of normality. Nathaniel was lucid enough to make good decisions, and he eventually moved into the apartment Steve had arranged for him. However, friendship may not always be the most important thing, and each situation requires good judgment and decision-making to determine the right course of action.

A significant factor that draws Steve to Nathaniel is his passion for music. After Nathaniel turns down his invitation to a concert at the Walt Disney Hall, Steve arranges for the two to watch a practice performance of the LA Philharmonic Orchestra there. As they sit there together Nathaniel's passion for the music they're hearing is clearly visible. That evening, Steve discusses their outing with his ex-wife and newspaper editor Mary Weston (Catherine Keener). “You see him, it's one thing. But you feel him. I'm watching him, he's watching the music, and while they're playing I say, 'My God, there is something higher out there. Something higher out there, and he lives in it.' ... To be there with him like that and see the way that he is transported. He surrenders ... I mean I've never loved anything the way that he loves music.” The writing Steve does for the newspaper has become just a job. What passion he did have for writing has been lost; now it's just a means of paying the bills. Though one man safely resides in the category that society would describe as successful and the other has dropped off the bottom end of society's ladder, Nathaniel has a passion that Steve will never know. He pursues that passion despite the difficulties, despite his homelessness, despite having only two strings on his violin. Nathaniel listens to the music of the city and plays his own music in response.

Is there anything you are so passionate about that you would go to any extremes because of it? Can people tell by watching you what you are passionate about? Does it permeate every aspect of your life? There is something refreshing about someone who is passionate about what they do. It is so easy to get swept under by all the mundane everyday tasks we must do, and find no time for the kind of devotion Nathaniel shows to his music. If there is something you love, it's not enough to hope to find the time to do that thing. If we don't physically set time aside to focus on what we love, then all too often the time will slip away, along with our passion.

The film ends with a voice-over from Steve: “I can tell you that by witnessing Mr Ayers's courage, his humility, his faith in the power of his art, I have learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in. Of holding onto it. Above all else, of believing, without question, that it will carry you home.”

Film title: The Soloist
Keywords: Friendship, homelessness, ambition, talent, passion
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Steve Lopez
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Distributor: DreamWorks SKG (USA); Paramount Pictures (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 24 April 2009 (USA); 11 September 2009 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains one use of strong language, moderate threat and drug use

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© 2010 Richard Blakely

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