The Soloist (2009)
A newspaper journalist discovers a homeless musical genius and tries to improve his situation.
In 2005, the only thing hurting Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez more than his face from a recent bike accident was his pressing need for story ideas. That is when he discovers Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill, homeless street musician who possesses extraordinary talent, even through his half-broken instruments. Inspired by his story, Lopez writes an acclaimed series of articles about Ayers and attempts to do more to help both him and the rest of the underclass of LA have a better life. However, Lopez's good intentions run headlong in the hard realities of the strength of Ayers' personal demons and the larger social injustices facing the homeless. Regardless, Lopez and Ayers must find a way to conquer their deepest anxieties and frustrations to hope for a brighter future for both of them.
Steve Lopez is a journalist for the LA Times. He is on the lookout for new story ideas when he stumbles across Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man with extraordinary musical talents. Lopez is eager to improve Ayers's situation, while writing a story on him, but the biggest problem may be Ayers himself.
- The film opens up in the early morning. A man is cycling by as a paper boy is driving around delivering newspapers. A newspaper hits a door and the main articles title is Life Has A Mind by Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.). Steve Lopez is cycling around town and goes in the opposite direction of a bunch of cyclists. Lopez gives an internal monologue chronicling a biking accident which occurred near a construction site. His bike hits a bump and he hits his head badly on the pavement. In the next scene hes in an ambulance being driven to a busy hospital. While in the emergency room, Lopez writes down his thoughts as if writing an article. He is given an MRI and after being cleared, takes a taxi home. He checks his messages (there are none), continues to narrate into a tape recorder.
The next morning, he goes into work at the L.A. Times. He continues to talk to himself as he walks through the halls about how much he hates hospitals and health care under the governor. The Editor of the L.A. Times, Mary (Catherine Keener), walks down the cubicles past Steve as he is greeted by the people in the neighboring cubicles. Steve and Mary banter about an article Steve was supposed to write before his accident but he tells her that he wont write it as she goes off to her office.
Steve is then sitting outside on the boardwalk drinking a soda. He hears a violin playing and starts to walk around the plaza until he finds the sources. He finds Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), playing a two string violin under a statue. Steve immediately realizes that Ayers is a schizophrenic and tries to walk away but Ayers follows him for a bit until Steve introduces himself. Ayers tells Steve that he once went to Julliard.
Steve is in his office making a call to the Registrars office at Julliard when Mary sits down next to him. She tells him that the LA times stock situation is looking pretty dire before switching the conversation over to their son. Mary tells Steve to call him but Steve says that whenever he calls their son wont call him back. He sends her away stating that he is trying to find a story before deadline. The Registrars office tells Steve that there is no record of a Nathaniel Ayers ever attending Julliard and then hangs up on Steve. He says hes not taking the blood story but as he crosses violinist off his list of potential stories its clear hes out of options. He is then seen sitting in front of a young nurse preparing to draw blood from him. As part of his blood test, he goes to urinate in a cup. While hes peeing he drops the cup and slips when he gets a callback from Julliard. The Secretary tells Steve that she only checked the graduates but when she checked all students, she found that Nathaniel Ayers dropped out of Julliard during his second year.
That night, Steve returns to where he met Nathaniel and narrates the content of the article Points West detailing how Nathaniel is missing while calling him shy. Steve drives back to his apartment and finds that raccoons ruined his lawn. His neighbor tells him that coyote urine will keep the raccoons away. Steve spends the night walking around his messy apartment while listening to music. The next morning, Steve is calling the head of the coyote urine business when he sees Nathaniel on the side of a busy intersection. He stops his car. Nathaniel turns away from him and continues to play his 2 string violin and doesnt speak. Steve waits patiently against the gate for Nathaniel to finish up. Nathaniel plays the same group of notes over and over until he cant do it anymore. Steve tells Nathaniel that he wants to write a piece about him and how he ended up on the street. Steve asks him about his family, but Nathaniel cant focus and give direct answers and continues to ramble, even asking if Steve is the pilot of a plane flying overhead at one point.
Steve calls Nathaniels sister to learn more about him. A flashback shows a young Nathaniel walking down the street carrying a cello. He met with his music teacher and went on and on about how much he admired Beethovens work. He played the cello for his teacher and the teacher thought that he was an incredibly gifted student. Instead of playing sports, his sister said that all Nathaniel would do was play the Cello. Nathaniels mother told him that when she listened to him play, she heard the voice of God. Steve writes an article detailing what he learned from Nathaniels sister. After it is published, an old lady reads it and sends Steve her old cello with the request that he give it to Nathaniel with her prayers. As Steve is driving through the same busy intersection, he almost hits Nathaniel who is picking up litter from the middle of the street (almost being hit multiple times by other cars) and gets him to walk over to the side. Steve is concerned about Nathaniels safety and the cello and arranges for Nathaniel to keep the cello in the office of a homeless shelter LAMP (under the stipulation that Nathaniel also stay at the same shelter). Steve lets Nathaniel play the instrument on the street for a test run. Nathaniel plays for Steve and Steve is visibly moved by the piece. Steve drives away with the cello to take it to the shelter.
The shelter is located in a bad neighborhood where a bunch of homeless people are gathered on the sidewalk outside the gate. He pulls up to the gate and asks to speak to someone named David. He and David put the cello in his office and Steve sticks around to wait for Nathaniel. He sees all the people with their problems and seems a bit troubled. He goes outside and continues to wait for Nathaniel. He mingles with several homeless people. He waits until nightfall and then goes home. He starts to put tie up a bag of coyote urine onto a tree when the bag explodes on him.
The next morning Steve is seen interviewing an Atheist road-side cleanup worker on the side of the road. when he gets a phone call and hears Nathaniel playing the Cello. He goes back to the shelter and sees Nathaniel playing for the people gathered around.
Another flashback shows Nathaniel in his first apartment and subsequent performances at Julliard. At one point he is surrounded by people and in the next he is in an empty auditorium. His musical performances grow more erratic and his paranoia starts to set in as a voice says they can hear your thoughts Nathaniel. He runs out of the auditorium and runs away because the voices tell him to. He hides in a closet and lets the voices overwhelm him. He calls his 'mother' from a payphone and shares the fact that he cant always tell what is going on in the world around him and that he cant differentiate whats real and whats not and drops the phone and the recording "please hang up and try your call again" is heard. It's obvious he wasn't actually talking to his mother but rather a dial tone.
Steve asks David if he will diagnose Nathanials problem. David says that it would be pointless. Steve asks if theres a medication that can help Nathaniel but David tells him that the last thing he needs is another person telling him he needs medication. Steve goes to find Nathaniel but Nathaniel is gone. Steve goes out to his car and just sits there, observing the interactions of the people outside before going to find Nathaniel. He walks past some drug users and down the street before seeing the police around a dead body. As he looks down to see the person, he sees Nathaniel next to him. Nathaniel finds a place to sleep and starts cleaning the area a little with a broom before setting up his bed. He tells Steve that he will end up like Beethoven and lie down and die. Steve spends the night with Nathaniel on the street and they talk. Steve tells Nathaniel that it is no place for him to live, but Nathaniel is adamant that this is where he should be.
The next morning Steve offers to bring Nathaniel to see an Orchestra perform Beethoven. Nathaniel watches the orchestra with Steve and as they perform, Nathaniel focuses only on the music and imagines each sound striking up a bright color.
Later on, Steve and Mary are at a karaoke bar with their coworkers and Steve is telling her about Nathaniels enjoyment of the music and the grace Nathaniel gets listening to music. Steve finds Nathaniels love of music to be awe inspiring. He upsets Mary when he tells her the he has never loved anything like Nathaniel loves music. He tries to recover from that but Mary leaves and tells him the Mayor wants to talk to him. The Mayor announces that he intends to add 50 million dollars in aid to the citys homeless community.
Nathaniel visits Steve at the office. Steve is busy and tells Nathaniel he cant perform in front of the building, so Nathaniel waits on the other side of the building. He calls Graham Clayton (Tom Hollander), a cellist, to rehabilitate Nathaniel. Steve convinces David to help find Nathaniel an apartment where Nathaniel can live and rehabilitation. Nathaniel doesnt want to live in an apartment. He frustrates Steve but then starts to question Steve about his family. Steve was once married to Mary, but they divorced. Their son, Tom is in college and wont talk to Steve. Steve tells Nathaniel that if he doesnt go to the apartment, he will be on his own.
Another flashback details Nathaniels mental breakdown in his old apartment. He is slowly driven insane by the voices until he cries on the floor of the apartment. A week later, Steve and Nathaniel move Nathaniel into the place where he will live and practice. It is a small apartment with a bed and a bathroom. There is enough room for Nathaniel to be comfortable and practice, but Nathaniel is afraid to enter the room. Steve patiently tells Nathaniel that he can do it. Eventually, Nathaniel enters the room with his stuff. Nathaniel doesnt like the room because it doesnt have the natural sounds of the city and reminds him of the night he spent going insane.
Steve introduces Graham and Nathaniel. Graham brings Nathaniel the sheet music for Bach to begin Nathaniels rehabilitation. Graham is impressed by Nathaniels skill but notices that it needs to be refined. Graham tells Nathaniel that God gave Nathaniel a gift and that Nathaniel shouldnt waste it. Nathaniel gets upset with Graham and declares that Steve is his God. Steve gets frustrated with Nathaniel for being so attached to him. Steve asks David to help Nathaniel with psychiatry and medication and tells David that if he puts Nathaniel into forced rehab for two weeks, that might be enough to get Nathaniel straightened out.
Steve goes to an award show which honors Steves achievement in bringing Nathaniels story to focus. Nathaniel calls Steve and tells him all the things he needs. Steve hands the phone off to Mary, and she listens to all the things Nathaniel says. She gets drunk and tells Steve that hes good at avoiding responsibility. Steve calls her a drunk and tells her she needs someone to drive her home.
Graham calls Steve the next day and tells Steve that Nathaniel should have a recital. At the recital Nathaniel wheels out his card and takes out his cello before sitting down in front of the audience. As Nathaniel starts to play, he begins to have a psychotic episode and hear the voices. He experiences a flashback to when his sister was taking care of him after he fled Julliard. She tries to give him a bowl of soup, but Nathaniel insists that it is poison and instead takes the spoon and starts force feeding her instead. Graham puts his hand on Nathaniel to bring him back to reality, but Nathaniel freaks out and the movie flashes between Nathaniel swinging a chair at Graham and the younger Nathaniel swinging the tray at his sister before he runs out the building. Steve picks up Nathaniels cello and looks for Nathaniel with his car. Again the movie flashes back to when Nathaniel freaked out on his sister and him running away with her following him in her car int he middle of winter and asking him where he is going and where he would sleep.
As Steve searches for Nathaniel, he sees the police launching a large scale arrest of the homeless and drug users. Steve finds police guarding a bloody shirt and is told that a bunch of kids with baseball bats beat a man brutally. Steve, convinced it's Nathaniel, checks every hospital in the area looking for him. He spends all night looking for him. The next morning, Steve gets a call from David telling him that Nathaniel is at the shelter eating breakfast and that he spent the night in the apartment. Steve visits Nathaniel at his apartment and returns his cello. Steve gives Nathaniel a miniature Beethoven and asks him if he did a good job looking out for him. Jennifer, Nathaniels sister, is ready to take over as Nathaniels caretaker. Steve leaves him the forms and tells him to read them before he signs them.
Nathanial reads the forms and throws them around the room when he realizes that its about his schizophrenic state of mind. Nathaniel gets violent with Steve, pushing and slapping him, and tells him that if he sees him again hell gut him like a fish. Steve runs out of the apartment the minute he gets free and leaves Nathaniel to the voices.
A little while later, Steve is taking shots in a bar. He visits Mary at her house. They reminisce about when they moved into the house with Tom. Steve comes to grip with his failures as a father and a husband. He apologizes to Mary and tells her that he thought he was helping someone with a gift who had lost their way. He tells her about what happened with Nathaniel and how he doesnt know how to fix it. He tells her that he officially resigns from everything since he cant get it right. Mary tells him that Steve would never have been able to cure Nathaniel just like he would never prevent a earthquake and that all Steve could do was be his friend.
Jennifer flies into L.A. to see her brother. Steve drives her to the shelter and she goes in to see him. The shelter is not as crowded as it was before the cops arrested people. Jennifer sees Nathaniel sitting and slowly approaches him. They sit together for a while as Steve watches from the car. Nathaniel remembers that Jennifer is his sister and reaches out his hand to her and she takes it. Steve sits outside dangling his car keys until the pair come out. Nathaniel looks down at Steve and apologizes for threatening Steve. Steve tells Nathaniel that its ok. Mr. Ayers, Im honored to be your friend.
Steve begins his narrative epilogue as Mary, Steve, Jennifer and Nathaniel watch an orchestra perform. A year ago, he met Nathaniel and thought that he could help him. His mental state and well being havent changed but he no longer lives on the street. Psychiatrists tell Steve that his friendship alone gives balance to chemical misfire in his brain, but he cant attest to it. Steve tells himself that Nathaniels friendship and courage has made him a better person. They watch the orchestra perform in silence.
Credits roll and the audience reads the following: Mr. Ayers still sleeps inside and is a member of LAMP. He continues to play the cello, as well as violin, bass, piano, guitar, trumpet, French horn, drums and harmonica. Mr. Lopez continues to write his column for the L.A. Times. He is learning to play the guitar. There are 90,000 homeless people on the streets of Greater Los Angelos.