Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Soloist

I had been anticipating this film for months. I play the cello, and I thought that Joe Wright did such a fantastic job with Pride & Prejudice that this certainly could not be a miss.

The premise is on this wise: Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, is injured in a bike accident, and while he's moping around L.A., he runs into a Julliard-trained homeless cellist, Nathaniel Ayers.

Let's first talk about what is great in the film. Wright delivers some truly powerful scenes--the most memorable of which is when the young Nathaniel is lit by flames, playing a fiery passage from Beethoven's Eroica symphony in his family's basement.

It also does a fantastic job cluing the rest of us in on how bad the homeless situation is in L.A. I had no idea there were 80,000 people living on the streets of that city. That's more than twice the size of my university. And the film shows that it's not just the number that's distressing, but the quality of life--the non-existence they endure flooded with drugs and violence and loss of self. It was startling.

So many times I was stunned at a particularly poignant shot, or impressed at how the funeral march from the Eroica matched so perfectly contemporary California. Also, the two leads do a fantastic job (aside from what I'm about to rag on Foxx for).

But here come the blunders. Jamie Foxx does not even try to do a convincing job on the cello. His fingers always move in the wrong direction. And in the scene when he plays ith the Julliard orchestra, his ignorance is most visible because he's entirely out of sync with the rest of the cellists. You would think that with his salary he would be expected to learn a little about the instrument--just enough to fake it. Also, how could anyone get into Julliard on the cello without learning Bach's 6 suites for cello? It would be like making it into Harvard's graduate divinity program without having heard of Genesis. After I was separated from my cello for two years, the first thing I played was Bach's suites. Also, Nathaniel's teacher shouts out entirely the wrong notes during their lesson when they introduce the suites. This paragraph may seem totally anal to some, but seriously. Obviously this movie will attract cellists, and I promise that it will annoy every single cellist who sees it.

And then there's a scene where they go to a rehearsal of the Eroica symphony. We watch the orchestra for a moment, and it's splendid. I love the way the camera soars over the conductor and musicians. And then.... I'm not sure what happened. We started watching a visualisation from Windows Media Player. I have to ask, what was the motivation behind that decision? Was it laziness? Had they exhausted their creativity with the opening shots of the orchestra? Or did they think that Americans were too lazy and ADD to watch an orchestra play for two solid minutes? I also didn't care for the CG pigeons soaring above the city.

But the heart of the movie suffered the most because there is no real conclusion. There's no redemption for either Lopez or Ayers. At the end of the movie, the screen flashes to tell us that Lopez is still writing his columns (although in real life, Lopez is happily married. So that's nice. The movie doesn't tell you that.), and Ayers is still insane, playing in tunnels, but lives in that apartment.

But what did we expect? Thousands of people have graduated with degrees from Julliard, and for the most part, they live lives of anonymity. Just because he did two years at a prestigious college does not mean he could have a noticeable career, or even play exceptionally well. There was certainly no performance in the movie to suggest he was any better than any cello performance major anywhere in the country. Although stunning, the opening strains of Beethoven's third symphony are not difficult. If he had any career at all, it would be one of spectacle, not performance. We would watch him and wonder how one so cripplingly insane could pull a bow over the strings. But he would never rival Isserlis or Yo-Yo Ma.

What the film does best is depict the awful state of homelessness in Los Angeles.

So what did this movie do for me? I listened to Beethoven's 3rd symphony for the first time in several months, and I watched the visualisations on Windows Media Player for the first time in years.

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