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When I see the words “based on a true story” attached to a film, I tend to get a little worried. Odds are that the filmmakers will distort the facts in order to get the maximum emotional manipulation. As such, I often find these types of movies cloying rather than uplifting. I also worry when I go into a film featuring “Oscar-Bait performances.” That is, a performance featuring mental illness, accents, social issues, etc. These portrayals always feel forced to me, and I tend to see the actor performing rather than the character existing. So it was that I began the Soloist, a film “based on a true story,” featuring Jamie Foxx as a schizophrenic, homeless, Julliard dropout. Despite my biases however, I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, and thoroughly impressed by the film as a whole.
Robert Downey, Jr. stars with Foxx as Steve Lopez, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. Always looking for a story, he finds himself drawn to Foxx’s character of Nathaniel Ayers after seeing him on the side of the road playing a violin with two strings. After briefly speaking with him and discovering his eccentricities, he begins to think he has a story. Digging into Ayers’ past, he discovers his history at Julliard and is eventually able to provide him with a cello, all strings attached. From this point forward, it is obvious that Lopez will be benefitting from this friendship as much as Ayers, and it is this relationship that provides the backbone of the film. Both performances are completely believable on their own, but it’s the interplay between the two that really evolve the film.
One of the features of the Blu-Ray is an interview with the real-life Lopez and Ayers. In watching this feature, it becomes very apparent that Downey, Jr. and Foxx put a lot of work into capturing the essence of these characters. It’s almost unsettling watching these interviews after seeing the film. Lopez and Ayers don’t look entirely like Downey, Jr. or Foxx, but the subtleties of the character are exact. Seeing this interview also helps to reinforce the nature of truth to the film. I still don’t know how much of the film was fabricated, but by adding this interview I find myself buying into the story more than I would have otherwise.
Overall, director Joe Wright did an amazing job capturing what it’s like to live in Los Angeles. Filmed all over the city, Los Angeles becomes a character itself. The movie is beautifully shot, even when showing the ugly side of what it’s like to live there. Of particular note is the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A pivotal set-piece in the film, it’s a gorgeous location used to maximum effect. Another aspect of the film masterfully captured by Wright is the monumental importance of music to the characters. Music is the backbone of the story, and is something any director would have trouble conveying on film. There are sequences where he just lets the music play, absorbing the characters and the audience alike. There is even a momentary section reminiscent of Fantasia. Ayers shuts his eyes while listening to a piece and we see the entire number represented as flashes of color on the screen. It is a brave moment to have included and one that could have easily alienated his audience. Personally, I found it very effective.
Despite my initial reservations, this film really works. It is not as formulaic as it would initially appear, delving into the complicated relation between the two leads as well as Ayer’s early descent into mental illness. There are no pat answers or solid resolutions by the end. The movie simply exists, painting a portrait of this moment in these two people’s lives. The Blu-Ray itself looks great. The details of Los Angeles really shine through. This clarity helps to enhance the viewing experience. The sound is also top-notch. Considering the critical role that music plays in the film, it is important that the sound comes through and it definitely does. This is a really solid disc for a really solid film. I highly recommend it.