Sometimes a story takes on a life of its own, like a runaway solo in the hands of a crazed musician. Three years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez stumbled across a homeless, middle-aged schizophrenic on skid row who was drawing remarkable music from a shabby violin with just two strings. His name was Nathaniel Ayers, and when Lopez discovered he’d once been a student at Juilliard, he knew he had a story. But after his column about Ayers appeared, the story didn’t stop. Readers sent Lopez violins and a cello to give to Ayers. And the journalist found himself cast as a reluctant guardian angel, on a mission to save a deranged street person who did not want to be saved. A relationship grew. More columns ensued, then a bestselling book called The Soloist—and now a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
That’s an incredible progression. A shattered artist sleeps on the pavement and carries his entire world in an overstuffed shopping cart. He plays arpeggios for pigeons, sounds that sift through the noisy squalor of the street, catch a journalist’s ear, and end up generating a Hollywood movie. When a homeless man is turned into an entertainment property, it makes you wonder about the ethical line between salvation and exploitation. But that issue serves as a central theme in both the book and the film, which treads carefully on terrain for which there is no real precedent. The movie Shine (1996) comes to mind. But its real-life subject, mentally ill piano prodigy David Helfgott, was nowhere near as destitute or deranged as Ayers.
British director Joe Wright, known for elegant period pieces like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, filmed The Soloist on Ayers’s home turf in the crack alleys of L.A., hiring homeless people as extras. In bringing his character to the big screen, Lopez “agreed there were issues around culpability and exploitation,” says Wright, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “But he felt there was a greater good at work. In hindsight, we see Mr. Ayers has received more notoriety within his community, and that is something he really enjoys. For 30 years he has been stamped on, beaten, thrown out, tied up, electrocuted and disenfranchised. Now he’s receiving the recognition he felt he always deserved.”
Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) took some liberties with the truth. However, they fictionalized Lopez far more than Ayers, who was already larger-than-life—costumed like a funkadelic superhero, he believes Beethoven is the leader of Los Angeles. Lopez was transformed from a married family man to a divorced, friendless neurotic who frets about raccoons tearing up his lawn and squabbles with an ex-wife who’s also his editor (Catherine Keener). “That came from Steve’s own admission that his relationship to Nathaniel had changed the way he viewed friendship,” says Wright. “We thought, well, if this film is about two people who didn’t have a friend coming together and finding friendship, then we should dramatize that. Also, Steve wasn’t interested in being depicted too closely.”
Ayers has not “seen” The Soloist, but he sat through it with his eyes closed. “A schizophrenic is constantly trying to determine what is real and what is not,” explains Wright. “His senses are bombarded with information we filter out. He’s attuned to every minuscule sound, colour and smell. The process of creating a moving image from 24 still frames a second is quite an active one, and something he finds difficult.” Still, Ayers loved the film’s music and pronounced Foxx “a good Nathaniel.” (The actor spent months studying cello for the role, but equally impressive are his riffing cadenzas of Nathaniel’s scat-like dialogue.)
The drama revolves around Lopez’s frustrating mission to get Ayers off the street and to accept a room in a downtown shelter, where he can practise the cello he’s been given and take lessons with a player from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ayers, now age 58 and living in that shelter, is making money from the movie, which is going to a trust fund held by his sister. Yet he still feels most at home in the homeless community, and is unconcerned about cash. “Music is all he cares about,” says Wright. “He gets up in the morning, decides where he’s going to play that day, what instrument he’ll play, and he goes and plays it.” But even if he rejects wealth, once the movie comes out he might have to get used to fame: Ayers may well become America’s first homeless celebrity.