The Soloist is based on an actual friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played in the film by Robert Downey Jr.) and a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia named Nathaniel Ayers (played in the film by Jamie Foxx). Lopez began writing a series of stories about Ayers after discovering that Ayers was an astonishingly talented musician. As the two men got to know each other Lopez found himself wanting to help Ayers get off the streets and get treatment. Lopez’s motivations were partly compassionate and partly opportunistic, and The Soloist explores the complicated dynamics that resulted from Lopez’s intervention into Ayers’s life.
Audiences looking for a feel-good film about a troubled musical genius finding his way home (such as in Shine) are going to be very disappointment with The Soloist as it is not a film that offers any easy solutions. It is to the film’s credit that it portrays mental illness as a complex issue where nothing is straightforward and sometimes managing the problem is a better solution than attempting to cure it. Foxx does an excellent job portraying Ayers as a troubled man who deserves our sympathy but not pity. Downey Jr. tends to slip into mannerisms that he has carried over from other films but nevertheless effectively acts as the identification point for the audience; channelling our frustration, good intentions and naivety. The Soloist is also a damning portrayal of the abject poverty and homelessness that exists in every big city and the scenes set on Skid Row, which were created with the assistance of the local homeless population and support shelters, are very confronting.
The Soloist is the first US film by the English director Joe Wright, whose masterful Atonement demonstrated how richly aware he is about how to use cinematic style to tell a story. The Soloist doesn’t quite give Wright the same opportunities as Atonement did but there are key scenes that indicate that he is developing into one of the most important directors of his generation. Simply through visuals Wright is able to convey the power that music has to fill a space. The defining scene in The Soloist is when Lopez takes Ayers to listen to a professional orchestra and Wright captures Ayers’s sense of transcendence simply through a montage of colour and light. In this one scene Wright has come as close as anybody has to visually capturing the power of music.