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Based On A True Story

by Tyler Langness (writer), Northridge, April 26, 2009

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The Soloist features excellent performances that unfortunately get lost in an unfocused narrative.

It's a measure of convenience and economic pragmatism to base a film on a "true story." Take something with a built-in audience, streamline the narrative to make it more palatable (read: simpler), throw in a couple of name actors, and the advertising claims can run the gamut from "true events" to "inspired by." Somewhere in the middle of this nebulous truthiness is where we can find The Soloist, the story of the friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and the inspiration for his magnum opus, the schizophrenic musical savant Nathaniel Ayers.

Before delving into the film itself, a little background - this film was supposed to be an Oscar contender. Filming finished last fall and Dreamworks was poised for a heavy push. It was an easy sell to get behind the remarkable comeback year of Robert Downey Jr. in a film by Atonement director Joe Wright. But once the economy committed suicide, the studio only had enough money for one Oscar push, and The Soloist wasn't it. So, instead of releasing it with minimal fanfare among the heavy hitters, the release was pushed back to April, where the competition would be things like Fighting and Fast & Furious.

In retrospect, it was a wise decision not to measure this film against the likes of Slumdog Millionaire. Strong performances by both Downey and Foxx can't quite carry a narrative that gets bogged down in trying to tell too many stories without emotional resonance. Wright's direction is polished but distant, never allowing the closeness that could really connect the discordant notes forming this imperfect symphony. Each time Downey shows us the frustrated side of a journalist in search of humanity in Los Angeles, it's juxtaposed by some sort of crass pratfall involving urine. Whenever Foxx, the remarkable mimic who nearly lost himself in this role, peels away the layers of schizophrenia to show us something both poignant and stirring, the film steers us back to the gritty, crime-infested Skid Row, as if to make sure we understand the gravity of the situation.

It is this lack of trust in an intelligent audience that categorizes the majority of the film. It's not enough to see Foxx's Ayers immersed in the melodic rehearsal of the L.A. Philharmonic; the point must be driven home with a two-minute psychedelic interlude. Simply showing Downey's Lopez struggle to humanize such a uniquely objectified population wasn't adequate for Wright - he needs to add an ex-wife/editor (an annoying Catherine Keener) nagging at him, getting drunk at black tie affairs and embarrassing him in front of the mayor.

Aside from the typically outstanding work from Foxx and Downey, the other major character in The Soloist is L.A.'s Skid Row. While those on the streets are cliched thugs and addicts, overdosing and beating each other to a pulp for no apparent reason, the residents just next to the edge of chaos, in the LAMP community, are much more nuanced. The filmmakers insisted on using some of Skid Row's real residents instead of actors, and the result, however brief, is captivating. On a personal level, the reason I was so transfixed was because, a few months ago, I worked for a couple of days as a Production Assistant for The Chorus, the companion documentary for The Soloist, which depicts the real-life residents of Skid Row and how they cope with living in such a place.

When I went down there, I was a bit nervous. Not because of the homeless population - I've done plenty of work with this city's disenfranchised. But because Skid Row is a notoriously rough place, even for a small crew of filmmakers. Once I arrived, the producer I knew didn't have the time to show me around, so instead she introduced me to K.K. K.K. was one of Skid Row's longtime residents, a lanky, graying black man with a kind word for everyone and a story for every corner. He took me around, telling me about the culture of a place that few people from my neck of the woods ever bother delving into. It was fascinating, having this tour guide who was utterly unabashed about a place so awash in poverty, crime and addiction. He loved everyone there in spite of the mistakes they'd made, because he'd made plenty of his own, and was better for it.

So, we went and picked up lunch for the crew while I absorbed the street wisdom of a man who'd seen enough for several lifetimes. We talked about the mayor's efforts to clean up the area, where you couldn't go after dark without a weapon, and what it meant to him to have a documentary being made about the people he loved so much. He was my liaison throughout both days, and the experience was all the better for his guidance. When we finished, I said goodbye to K.K. and all the wonderful people he'd introduced me to, thanking him profusely for an experience I would never forget. I looked forward to the opening of The Soloist this week, knowing that K.K. and some of his friends would be in the movie.

And then, two days before the film's release, I heard that K.K. had been murdered.

He was doing bodyguard work (without a weapon, he didn't carry one) and was shot on Easter Sunday. Typically, he was giving everything he had without ever really having anything. His senseless death resonated with me in the way a family member's would, because for someone who had nothing to give but his time, he gave me two days toward what turned out to be the end of his life. I have nothing but gratitude for what he showed me and regret that no one else will get to see it. When we were walking the streets of Skid Row, he painted a picture for me that was at once both tragic and beautiful, weaving the grit of Los Angeles' gutter with the hopes and dreams of a forgotten population. If only The Soloist had achieved such narrative harmony, the film could aspire to tell a story as touching and remarkable as K.K.'s.



About the Writer

Tyler Langness is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Based On A True Story

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By Steven Lane on April 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Very interesting, As to "The Soloist", I really don't know why, even with the star power, it screams "see it on DVD", to me. However, "The Chorus"  really hits a nerve, as I am a documentary nut case! Great review and back story.

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