RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Earlier this week, in our series about Skid Row in Los Angeles, we heard about a mentally ill man with an extraordinary gift for music. Today, the movie version of Nathaniel Ayers' story opens, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. "The Soloist" is based on a book chronicling the real-life friendship between Nathaniel Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. And we have this review from our film critic, Kenneth Turan, who is one of Lopez's colleagues at the L.A. Times.
KENNETH TURAN: Remember when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, I knew Jack Kennedy and Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy? Well, I felt a little that way when it came to reviewing "The Soloist," and I saw what Hollywood had done to what had started as a series of columns in the Los Angeles Times.
The story of Steve Lopez's friendship with a gifted but deeply troubled street musician certainly had the makings of a good movie. The columnist heard a violin on the mean streets of downtown L.A. and followed its sounds to a bust of Beethoven in a city park. There, he made the acquaintance of a homeless, paranoid schizophrenic man named Nathaniel Ayers.
(Soundbite of "The Soloist")
Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): (As Nathaniel Ayers) I'm flabbergasted about this statue. Aren't you flabbergasted about this?
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. (Actor): (As Steve Lopez) Anyway, nice to meet you.
Mr. FOXX: (As Nathaniel Ayers) Do you have any idea how it got here?
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) Nah, maybe they dropped it off late at night.
Mr. FOXX: (As Nathaniel Ayers) It really blows me away that someone as great as Beethoven is the leader in Los Angeles.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) I'm Steve Lopez, L.A. Times.
Mr. FOXX: (As Nathaniel Ayers) Lopez. Lopez.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) What's your name?
Mr. FOXX: (As Nathaniel Ayers) Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. N-A-T-H-A-N-I-E-L A-N-T-H-O-N-Y A-Y-E-R-S J-U-N-I-O-R. I apologize for my appearance. I've had a few setbacks.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) Me, too.
TURAN: The musician turned out to have an astonishing back story: Once upon a time, he was enrolled in New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music — a classmate, in fact, of the celebrated Yo-Yo Ma.
The reason I'm frustrated by "The Soloist" is that the film relentlessly overplays everything. When Ayers gets to hear a concert in Disney Hall, we can't just enjoy the moment. Instead, director Joe Wright has to treat us to a psychedelic light show left over from the Jefferson Airplane playing the Fillmore.
Even more frustrating is that all this happens in the name of doing good in the world, of making the story's powerful lessons about friendship and mental illness more palatable to a wider audience. But a story this good doesn't need a light show to get its point across. Not even close.
MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. You can watch clips from "The Soloist" and get more movie reviews on our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
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