Movie vs. Reality: The Soloist
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
August 6, 2012
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.
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.