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Friendship, Music Redeem Homeless Man in 'The Soloist'


"A lost dream, an unlikely friendship and the redemptive power of music." That is the cover page inscription on a book by Los Angeles newspaper columnist Steve Lopez about his unusual relationship with homeless street musician Nathaniel Ayers. That book has now been made into a feature film. Here's a look at The Soloist.

Late one night in 2005, the journalist is drawn to a haunting impromptu concert coming from a downtown Los Angeles street corner. A middle-aged black man in tattered clothing, his worldly possessions piled in a nearby shopping cart, is lovingly playing a broken violin.

That chance encounter is the start of a beautiful friendship chronicled in the newspaper columns by Steve Lopez who says it changed his life as it also affected the lives of the musician and many of his fellow street people.

"I think it's a powerful drama about friendship, about music, about chance encounters and a million other things," Lopez says. "It also happens to be about a guy was homeless when I met him and what I've learned is that it is not somebody else that is out there: that everybody has a story somewhat like Nathaniel's and those are our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. When you get to know the population and realize how many of them are military veterans and how many of them are dealing with a serious mental illness, maybe then it's a little easier to open our hearts and our minds and take a look at this country's public policy in that area. It is not that we don't know how to help people like Mr. Ayers. It is that we have not made the commitment to it."

Nathaniel Ayers has schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects his perception of reality. Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx plays him in The Soloist and says he needed to separate the man from the illness …and to portray the important role of music in his world.

"I had to play, not the guy who was crazy or schizophrenic; I had to play the guy that 'happened to be.' He's a guy that went to New York and Juilliard who happened to play very well, who happened to have schizophrenia, who happened to end up in Los Angeles homeless and who happened to run into a beautiful friend in Steve Lopez," Foxx explains.

"The music is what calms him. That's what soothes him because music takes you completely somewhere else," he adds. "When you get into an elevator …most people get nervous in elevators …the reason there is that soft music playing is it sort of calms you without you even knowing it. As a musician, I'll go through things in my life that are not quite the way I want them to be. Then you hear a song or you play some music and it changes your whole outlook. That's what I do and I know that's what Nathaniel did."

Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as Steve Lopez and says making The Soloist was a powerful emotional experience for all involved; but, in the end, it is meant to entertain.

"It is not like I need a movie to help me get my head right and I take umbrage at the idea that there was some lesson I had to learn from the thing," Downey says. "It is a way of infusing some Hollywood venture with profundity. Really what I took away from it more than anything else is sometimes you make a movie and sometimes the movie makes you."

Author Steve Lopez says the real-life experience did make an impression on many lives.

"This story played out at a time of the decline of this American institution, the newspaper; and I have been a journalist for almost 35 years and never had any reaction like I've had to this," he explains. "That began with the very first column. I've had thousands of emails from people who related and saw this as a story of second chances. They were rooting for Nathaniel and rooting for me. So the human-interest aspect of this story and their appreciation of just a simple human connection and how a chance encounter can change two lives has riveted people from the beginning."

The Soloist is adapted for the screen by Susannah Grant, who also drew on real life in her Oscar-nominated script for Erin Brockovich. Making his first American film, English-born director Joe Wright used the actual Los Angeles locations and many of the city's real 'street people' to give The Soloist its authentic look.

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