We’ve all heard movies described as “based on a true story,” but what does that actually mean? I’m always surprised by the fact that some people seem to equate this to watching a documentary. Sure, some movies stick close to the source material but even the most faithful adaptations make changes to the story. And of course there are some movies that alter so much that any similarities to the actual events seem to be accidental.
Movie vs. Reality: The Soloist
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
August 6, 2012
In each entry of this column I’m going to be looking at a different movie “based on a true story” or whatever phrasing is attached to it and compare it to the actual story. Hopefully, I’ll be able to separate fact from Hollywood. But I’m also going to be talking about what those changes mean and why they were made. Do the changes have some artistic merit or are they just attempts to make the story fit into a neat Hollywood package?
“The pen is mightier than the sword” can sound like the definition of trite. But every now and then you read a story that reminds you how powerful and moving words can really be. In 2005, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez met a homeless musician on the streets of Los Angeles. Lopez was so fascinated by this man, Nathaniel Ayers, that he wrote a column on him. Readers were so moved that they wanted to not only read more about Ayers and his plight; they actually wanted to help him. This led Lopez to write even more about Ayers and along the way two became friends. Lopez did a lot to help not just his new friend but he helped shine a light on the horrible conditions of the place Nathaniel and many other homeless people were living in. Because of the columns, the mayor of Los Angeles stepped in to help improve conditions of Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row.
Lopez helped set Ayers on a path to recovery, got him off the streets, and even gave him access to the instruments he loved so much. But Lopez was in turn inspired by Ayers’ spirit, learned about the redemptive power of music, and even had his passion for journalism reignited. The columns were collected into a book called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. In this entry I will be looking at the film adaptation The Soloist (2009.) The movie stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. and is directed by Joe Wright. Usually I divide the story into groups but because of the way the movie is structured I didn’t do that this time around.
What the Movie Got Right:
One day, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) stumbles upon a homeless man playing the violin beautifully at the side of a very busy - and loud - Los Angeles Street. Lopez decides to investigate and finds Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless schizophrenic. The reason Nathaniel plays at that spot is to be close to a Beethoven statue. Lopez approaches the man and during the conversation that follows, he learns that Nathaniel once attended Juilliard.
Recognizing a good story when he sees one, Steve begins trying to dig up as much information on he can on Nathaniel. His first move is to contact Juilliard to see if there are any records of Nathaniel. Unfortunately, Steve learns that no one by Nathaniel’s name ever attended the prestigious music school. Thinking he has lost his hook, Steve almost gives up on the story, but he soon hears back from the school. It turns out that there was a clerical error and Nathaniel did in fact attend Juilliard but dropped out after two years.
Steve quickly goes on a search for Nathaniel. When he finds Nathaniel, Steve informs him of his plan to write a column on him. Nathaniel does not seem interested in what Steve is saying. Eventually Steve realizes he is getting nowhere, so he decides to contact Nathaniel’s sister. She gives the journalist some information on Nathaniel and his condition. Nathaniel used to be a musical prodigy but while at Juilliard, he began displaying symptoms of schizophrenia. Unable to handle the emerging disease and the pressure of attending the prestigious school, Nathaniel dropped out. At first he was living with his mom but eventually wound up on the streets.
After Steve’s first column is released, a reader is so touched that she sends a cello to Steve’s office, which he brings to Nathaniel. Unfortunately, Steve wonders if the instrument will make Nathaniel a target for a mugging or worse. Fearing for Nathaniel’s safety, he talks him into leaving the instrument at a shelter. Steve tells Nathaniel he can play the instrument anytime; he just has to go to the shelter to do so.
As he gets to know him more, Steve becomes genuinely concerned for Nathaniel and tries to get a doctor to help him. He also tries to talk Nathaniel into moving into an apartment. Later, he tries to rehabilitate Nathaniel through music. His plan is to provide Nathaniel with music lessons at the apartment.
When things start to look like they are getting better, Steve suggests that Nathaniel’s sister be made his executor. All Nathaniel has to do is sign some papers, which Steve brings over to the apartment. Unfortunately, as Nathaniel is reading the papers, he notices that it states that he has a schizophrenic mind. This angers him greatly and he blows up on Steve. Nathaniel becomes so enraged that he actually attacks Steve and threatens to kill him.
Steve gives Nathaniel time to cool off but soon realizes how much of an impact Nathaniel has had on his own life. As a result, Steve is determined to make amends with Nathaniel, who also wants to patch things up. When Nathaniel’s sister comes to LA, the three of them spend time together. Later on, Lopez wonders if he has actually made a difference in Nathaniel’s life. Nathaniel still hears voices, but at least he no longer lives on the streets. In the end it is revealed that Ayers is still a member of the shelter and that Lopez is learning how to play the guitar.
What the Movie Got Wrong
It’s understandable that a movie like this one would make a few changes to the source material, but the movie wastes no time in taking liberties. The way Lopez described his initial meeting with Nathaniel must have not seemed exciting enough for the filmmakers. He was on foot heading back to the office and just happened to see Nathaniel. However, the movie felt the need to concoct an accident that leaves Steve in the Emergency Room. It is from his hospital room that he first hears Nathaniel play.
It’s kind of odd that they chose to fabricate this accident considering how quickly it is forgotten. The only thing that comes out of it is a feeble attempt to show how crowded emergency rooms get and how overworked its staff members are. But any sort of commentary on the state of the hospital system quickly falls by the wayside and so do Steve’s injuries. When he arrives home from the hospital, he mentions that he might feel disoriented for up to four weeks. But in the next scene, he’s back at work and fine. No time jump was mentioned or hinted at and the bruise on his eye looks the same.
Another noticeable change the movie makes is that it compresses the time the story takes. Although it’s obvious it can’t play out in real time, they could have shown captions to indicate how much time had passed. Instead, the movie portrays the events as having occurred a lot more quickly. The movie would have you believe that after their initial meeting, Steve had no trouble finding Nathaniel again. In reality, it took him three weeks to find Nathaniel a second time. And after their second meeting, two weeks went by before they saw each other again.
At one point a reader sends a cello for Nathaniel but Steve tells him he can only play it at the shelter to be safe. In the movie we see that Nathaniel does not go to the shelter that night and we get a sense that at least some time had gone by because Steve was already in search of a new story. In reality, a whole month passed before Nathaniel went to the shelter. Again, a simple caption could have shown the time jump. It might seem like an unimportant detail but it really is. When I first saw the movie I had no idea such a long time had gone by so I didn’t think that much of it. But when I read the book and I found out that a month had passed, it made it clear to me just how hesitant Nathaniel was to go to the shelter. It also shows just why it was such a big deal when he did go.
In the movie, Nathaniel plays at a recital to disastrous results. In reality he played at a club and although it started out roughly, Nathaniel eventually came through.
Like I said before, it’s understandable that some things would be changed but in this case some of the alterations are just baffling and actually hurt the movie. One of the more ridiculous things that the movie does is to change Steve’s marital status. In real life he was happily married but I guess the filmmakers were worried that Nathaniel’s plight didn’t provide enough conflict so they decided to make Steve divorced. He’s not only divorced but he works with his ex-wife.
Another thing that winds up being detrimental to the movie is that it insists at trying to shoehorn social commentary. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a movie commenting on social issues but The Soloist does it so clumsily. The movie makes vague mentions of serious issues and quickly tosses them aside.
Instead of making clumsy grabs at seriousness, it could have included a scene depicting Nathaniel spending Easter with Steve’s family. As Nathaniel began making progress, Steve invited him over to celebrate the holiday with his family. It was a really touching moment and we get to see that underneath everything Nathaniel is still a charming and warm man. Watching him express his desire to have his own family could have made for a genuinely touching scene.
And if that weren’t enough, the movie tries to force humor with a completely unnecessary subplot involving raccoon urine that goes nowhere.
In the end, the changes do nothing to help the movie and rob the story of the emotional weight it should have had. It’s too bad, because Foxx and especially Downey give great performances that are wasted on a movie that doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in the story it’s telling. Perhaps The Soloist would have benefited from sticking closer to the source material without trying to force melodrama at every turn. Adding some narrative focus would have also helped but as it stands The Soloist winds up being a missed opportunity.
Next Time: The Bank Job