Soloist, The (UK - DVD R2)
Scott McKenzie has been away but is found playing his cello on LA's streets...
While searching the city for a story, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) comes across a homeless man (Jamie Foxx) called Nathaniel Ayers with an obvious talent for music playing a two-string violin. Nathaniel suffers from schizophrenia and his mental problems led to him dropping out of a prestigious music college and living his life on the streets. Steve builds a relationship with him and writes a popular series of columns about Nathaniel’s story, prompting the writer to take action to support Nathaniel and give him back as much of his previous life as a professional musician as he can.
Based on a real-life story and featuring a strong performance from Jamie Foxx, The Soloist looks like exactly the type of film that would clean up in awards season. Paramount had originally given this film a release date of November 2008, which would have put it in the running for the Oscars, but by holding it back until April 2009 it is now unlikely to be at the front of the Academy’s mind when they’re putting together the nominations, especially since it only just managed to recoup half its budget at the US box office.
Jamie Foxx puts in a strong performance as Nathaniel across two different periods of time—in flashback scenes as he struggles to cope with schizophrenia during his time at music school and as a homeless man in the present day. As convincing and well-researched as his performance is, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that it’s a combination of Ray and Rain Man— Rayn Man so to speak (did you like that?). For me, this has more to do with weaknesses in the script than Foxx’s abilities as an actor though. While I’m sure that some of Nathaniel’s tics and mannerisms are a mirror on the real man himself, the way they are scripted for the screen feels like they were lifted directly from Rain Man and at times it’s difficult to shake off the image of Dustin Hoffman.
The relationship between Nathaniel and Steve is central to the movie and your appreciation of The Soloist depends on your emotional investment in the bond that grows between them. I got to the end of the movie without really feeling like I wanted to know more about how their friendship continued to develop in real life. It wasn’t until I listened to the director’s commentary that I worked out what it was that didn’t feel right. It turns out that the character of Steve Lopez is not much like the real Steve Lopez. In real life he is happily married, but in the movie he’s painted as a quirky, divorced loner. Robert Downey Jr. certainly gives the character his usual brand of unhinged charm, but his character feels too much like a dramatic contrivance just to make us think he is a ‘soloist’ too, where using him just as our eyes on Nathaniel’s world might have worked better and been more true to the real-life Steve Lopez.
That’s not to say The Soloist is all bad though. Like most films starring Catherine Keener, she steals the scenes she’s in and also like most films starring Catherine Keener, she isn’t given enough screen time, even though her role was purposely expanded for her. Joe Wright is an interesting director and just as he did with Atonement, he takes opportunities here to use long takes and feature some slightly surreal moments. The way he uses flashing colours against a black background to represent Nathaniel’s synaesthetic appreciation of the orchestra at the Disney theatre is a strange choice but it works well, highlighting the fact that Nathaniel’s mind is wired differently to most people’s.
Well then Universal, you didn’t get off to a good start in these stakes by plastering ‘Property of Universal’ all over the screen, did you? The screener copy I got kept reminding me every few minutes that I was watching their movie. It won’t affect anyone that picks up a retail copy, but I find this approach to copy protection regularly takes me out of the film. Anyhoo, the main thing I noted about the visuals of The Soloist was the great lighting, both of the dark interiors that Steve Lopez inhabits and the contrast of bright sunshine and shadow where Nathaniel spends his days. The picture here is sharp and very detailed, bringing attention to the grime-tinged bright colours of Nathaniel’s clothes. The only complaint I have (other than Universal’s water-marking) is that the black level is more like very dark grey, which doesn’t really detract from the viewing experience.
The Soloist is all about the music. In real life, Nathaniel said that when he was playing, all he could hear was the music and the applause of the pigeon’s wings. When we see Nathaniel playing in the street (especially when we see him playing the cello for the first time) the other sound effects fade out and we just get to hear the music. The music sounds powerful on the 5.1 surround track, but it can occasionally be a bit too loud when we’re supposed to be paying attention to Robert Downey Jr.’s narration. There is also good use of the surround channels to bring the city alive, with traffic and other city noises coming through the rear channels.
The disc loads up with skippable trailers for The Boat That Rocked and State of Play, a promo for Universal’s Blu-ray releases and an advert for Universal Resort in Orlando. The director provides a commentary track, where he discusses lots of interesting details about the making of the film, including the fact that they managed to film in the real LA Times offices. He also reveals that Jamie Foxx and the actor who played the young Nathaniel spent time together working on their character to ensure continuity between the different time periods in the movie. There are five deleted scenes available, most of them obviously cut for timing to keep the story moving but the last one appears to be an alternative ending, even though it isn’t billed as that.
Finally, we get two featurettes. The first is a typical twenty-minute making of that includes interviews with the actors, producers and director Joe Wright in a horrible hat, all talking about how great each other were. However, there are some interesting nuggets to be found—for example, the extras in the scenes among the homeless and people in social care really are members of those communities. ‘Juilliard’ is a four-minute spot about the music college that Nathaniel attended and the roles some ex-students played in the making of the film.
I had high hopes for The Soloist. I'd give it the nod to anyone who happens to come across it, but I felt I was in mostly familiar overcoming-mental-disorder territory and the central relationship that is critical to the movie doesn’t quite work. While rather slight, the extras definitely improved my appreciation of the film, if only to give me more details about what I thought were the weaker points. No complaints about the transfer though—fans of The Soloist will not be disappointed at all.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 1st February 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Arabic, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Deleted Scenes, An Unlikely Friendship - Making The Soloist, Featurette - Juilliard
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Length: 112 minutes
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