“The Soloist” strikes me as a very special film handicapped by unfortunate marketing. Dreamworks seems unfairly bound to promote the feature as a feel-good snapshot of redemption, spotlighting the road-tested appeal of the privileged white man taking a handicapped black soul under his wing, guiding him to unimaginable greatness. “The Soloist” is not that film. Under no circumstances is this picture a perverse “Radio 2.” Put the marketing aside, block the promotion out, and absorb this feature for what it truly is: a masterful observation of genius trapped inside unimaginable distress. The studio would like to sell a candied inspirational story, but director Joe Wright avoids the sugared path at all turns, producing a stunning, transcendent celluloid event that fuses the tranquility of classical music with the unyielding frailty of humanity.
Recouping from a rough day of accidents and professional self-doubt, Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) stumbles upon the impressive musical skills of homeless man Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Striking up a conversation with the visibly disturbed man, Lopez begins to piece together fragments of Ayers’s prestigious history as a gifted cellist, admirer of Beethoven, and once promising student at Juilliard. Finding inspiration for a series of cover stories on Ayers’s fractured reality and the alarming conditions made available to the city’s homeless population, Lopez finds colossal success, which inspires him to reach out and attempt to cure Ayers’s afflictions with medicine and invasive psychological probing. However, the attention pushes Ayers to retreat further into his mind, to find a place where his demons can be held at bay and his virtuoso gifts can be permitted freedom.
“Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” presented Wright with a cinematic forum to craft recognizable, perhaps cliched acts of tragedy and conflict, yet the filmmaker never provided simple emotional resolutions. “The Soloist” is another easy layup of a story, observing the worry of the mentally damaged genius led gradually to artistic enlightenment. Again, Wright routinely dismisses formulaic comfort, and his work on “Soloist” confirms the obvious: he’s one of the more gifted young filmmakers in the business today, blessed with a capacity to articulate striking crisis through a generous lens. His characters are rarely served redemption on a silver platter, and “The Soloist” is brought to towering life by this desire on Wright’s part to make the audience feel tightly intertwined in the bleak circumstances facing both main characters.
A true story melted down to screenplay size by Susannah Grant (based on Lopez’s book), “The Soloist” is a familiar dramatic creature within the set-up of the relationship between Ayers and Lopez. Characterizing the men as unlikely comrades, with the journalist’s dogged curiosity becoming the tie that binds, the film solidifies intent immediately, underlining Lopez’s fixation and Ayers’s mystery in the first act. What fascinated me about “Soloist” is how unexpectedly the film transforms into visual and aural poetry, with Wright using orchestral cues to gaze into the unknown of Ayers’s mind, where beautiful peace still resides, just waiting for instinctive performance behavior to be unleashed. The impulse is gorgeously realized in a moment of bliss as Ayers’s symphonic thoughts turn into a swirling display of colors that seize the film for a few minutes of sensorial immersion.
Wright is known for a few bravura acts of filmmaking here and there, and “Soloist” is a handsomely assembled feature film all around. The director composes superbly complex shots of horror and ecstasy, attempting to pull the audience into the suffocating positions of the characters, exploring their depressive weight and frustration, but also their flashes of genius.
While lovely to explore visually, the story is still attended to, most directly in Lopez’s journey to the slums of downtown Los Angeles: a hell on Earth that contains claustrophobic masses of the suffering, the violent, and the forgotten; souls unable to find their place in the general populace. Here Lopez starts to absorb a larger portrait of Ayers’s developing battle with schizophrenia and perfected isolation, searching for some sort of solution. A ridiculous notion of a cure. Watching Downey Jr. and Foxx graciously and effortlessly capture the uselessness of such an idea is how the film elevates to a riveting pulse of discontent. There are no simple answers for these characters, and Wright doesn’t pretend that kindness always has a specifically cheery reward. The complexity of generosity and the dissatisfaction that follows infuses the picture with passionate confrontations of self, again brutally realized in the poised performances.
The AVC encoded video on the “Soloist” BD (2.40:1 aspect ratio) communicates the suffocation of Ayers’s mind with beautiful images, free of defects and healthy with colors. Black levels remain solid throughout the presentation, keeping the various screen elements in check. “Soloist” is a visually vibrant thing with a daredevil screen aesthetic, and the Blu-ray preserves the artistry with tremendous detail (Lopez’s opening facial wound is an outstandingly complicated makeup job) and clarity befitting a recent release.
The Dolby True HD 5.1 sound mix on the “Soloist” BD is rich with layers of dreamy orchestral flavors, crisply reproduced to create an emotional force field of sorts. Street sequences occasionally swallow dialogue, though it often registers as an artistic choice. The track is primarily music oriented and demands to be played at top volume, where the listener can get lost in Ayers’s mind and experience his world through delicate use of surround channels and forceful stings of the strings. It’s a compelling aural experience that brings the images to startling life. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also included.
English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Joe Wright is delightfully conversational, with the filmmaker not quite as prepared as most, but always offering nuggets of insight to illuminate the production experience. Wright verbally wanders, but in a lovely way that offers the normal routine of actor praise and location recollection mixed with hilarious digressions into the breast size of a supporting actress and the distastefully colored seat covers at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Wright is a charmer, and while the track has a few gaps of silence, there’s a nice stream of information offered here to better understand “Soloist” and the objectives of its gifted director.
“An Unlikely Friendship: Making ‘Soloist'” (19:37) takes a generously serene approach to a standard BTS discussion. Trying to convey an entire shoot in under 20 minutes, the featurette takes the discussion slowly, with cast and crew interviews (beautifully shot) carefully explaining inspiration and dramatic intent. While not a fleshed-out documentary that takes on every corner of the feature, “Friendship” captures the passion of the filmmakers and the concentration of the film.
“Kindness, Courtesy, and Respect: Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez” (4:48) sits down with the real Steve Lopez and Nathanial Ayers to talk about their relationship and how they’ve absorbed the cinematic process. It’s fascinating to watch their interplay, and to see where Foxx and Downey Jr. founded their dramatic interpretations.
“One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles” (9:45) sobers up the supplement experience, communicating the dire situation on the streets of the city. Talking with the concerned and the frustrated, the featurette is an eye-opening discussion of street life and the LAMP Community, with the participants making a clear effort to put a human face on a growing problem.
“Julliard: The Education of Nathanial Ayers” (4:08) discusses the educational experience for Ayers (he was classmates with Yo-Yo Ma), morphing into a plea for arts preservation.
“Beth’s Story” (2:02) is a chilling animated short reinforcing the need to treat homelessness as a human problem, not just a faceless plague.
“Deleted Scenes” (9:49) showcase more of Lopez at the hospital, Ayers’s adolescent bullying and initial outbreak of his disturbances, and spends more time with Lopez and Ayers as they bond over musical serenity.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
As Ayers and Lopez struggle to mend their fractured communication and build toward a common psychological harmony, “Soloist” eschews the temptation of a hysterical climatic build to close as softly as it began. After all, this is a relationship founded on ethereal orchestral wings, and Wright respects and urges “The Soloist” to assume the same dignity and spellbinding poignancy to match the grace of the music that inspired it.Rating: A