Friday, April 24, 2015

Film Friday: The Soloist

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (2008)
Written by Steve Lopez
Narrated by William Hughes
Run Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Publisher: Blackstone Audio/Putnam

Downtown Los Angeles is a strange mix. First Street is home to City Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, government buildings and the Los Angeles Times. Fifth Street has the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast, Pershing Square and the LA Central Library. On these streets, it's not uncommon to see men and women in business attire rushing to and from meetings with their lattes and suitcases in tow. But further down Fifth, in the eastern reaches of downtown, lies an infamous place called Skid Row.

Despite using the term 'Row', Skid Row has no defined boundaries. Many of the homeless that call the area home suffer mental illness, addictions, and other hardships. In my travels through downtown over the years, I've seen homeless sleep on benches in and out of the Skid Row area and a college class tour down Fifth Street walked right through a drug deal. Many of my classmates and I were stunned at what we saw, some acted indifferent, while the teacher was either purposefully ignorant so as to not have to mention it or completely unaware. While nonprofit groups like Union Rescue Mission and the Downtown Women's Center help, there are anywhere between 2,000 and 11,000 homeless residents on Skid Row today, according to a recent Daily Beast profile.

Steve Lopez's book The Soloist is a wonderful story about compassion. Lopez, a Pulitzer finalist and longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, met Nathaniel Ayers in Pershing Square. Ayers, who dropped out of Julliard after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style. Lopez befriends him and writes a series of columns on Ayers. The columns eventually attract the attention of then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Lopez writes in a straightforward style and I immediately cared for him and Ayers to succeed and get the latter's life back on track. He thoroughly explains how groups like LAMP assist the mentally ill of Skid Row and the bond between the two men that develops seeps through the pages. For a subject that can be dour, Lopez keeps it honest but never overbearing. As a journalist who has covered mental health issues myself, Lopez's accounts of the mental health system were similar to ones I've seen. In terms of the audiobook itself, the narration by William Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Rating: 4/5 stars. The book is a stellar example of journalistic nonfiction and a testament to compassionate care toward our fellow human beings.

The real-life Ayers (far left) and Lopez (second from left) and their big-screen counterparts in Foxx (second from right) and Downey (far right).

The Soloist (2009)
Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay written by Susannah Grant
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks

Initially scheduled for release in 2008, the film version of The Soloist was tabbed as a potential Oscar contender. Robert Downey Jr. was coming off the original Iron Man and Tropic Thunder while Jamie Foxx had won a Best Actor Oscar four years earlier for Ray. However, a schedule shift to April 2009 effectively took it out of consideration.

While I enjoyed the book more than the movie, the film does have some bright spots. Some of my favorite moments were brief sequences where Lopez, played by Downey, is just observing people on Skid Row. The camera just focuses on various people waiting on both sides of the LAMP compound's walls, as if to say they're just waiting for something or someone to help them right their ship. The movie also presents the fears associated with the shrinking of newspapers well.

In the book, Lopez is married, but in the movie, he is divorced from his ex-wife who is also his editor. As part of that change, there's a very awkward dinner scene that felt out of place. I'm not sure why these particular adjustments were made, but they made me think of the book and the true story and not what was happening onscreen.

The performances by Downey and Foxx were commendable and the movie still hits on the book's key points. But, as is mostly the case when a book makes the jump to celluloid, the movie paled in comparison. Grade: 3/5 stars

After the movie was released, Ayers performed at several conventions including one for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI (see video below). Lopez continues to write for the LA Times. In the wake of a shooting involving a police officer in Skid Row last month, Lopez followed up on his experiences with an updated column. As a result of the shooting, CNN also did a profile on Skid Row.

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