Given that “Based on a True Story” is Hollywood’s poetic license to kill, it is just too good to be true that the homeless virtuoso in Joe Wright’s new film, The Soloist, is an ardent, if unhinged, devotee of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The opening theme of that epoch-making work runs like a leitmotiv through the movie. The filmmakers have resurrected in Dolby surround sound the most venerable critical response to this music as dark and deviant.
We first meet Jamie Foxx’s black street person and Juilliard dropout Nathaniel Ayers through L. A. Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr. ) whose columns and eventual book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, spawned the movie. That subtitle’s cloying recitation of redemption strikes fear into the hearts of those, like me, who give the widest possible berth to the deadly icebergs of Hollywood’s frozen tears. I’m still in recovery from the time some fifteen years ago that a jetlagged Yearsley (me) was made to cry above the North Atlantic in full view of my fellow passengers during the final scene of Forrest Gump. What humiliation it was to have the emotion extracted from me by the soaring strings of the soundtrack lofting the feather of true-love-thwarted-by-cancer up to heaven. Shackled to my seat, I watched in pure terror as the tears were tortured out of me, raining down on my midnight/morning coffee. Never Again!
At the outset of The Soloist Lopez has left his cubicle in the LA Times building and is out for stroll in the surrounding urban desert in search of a story, when he hears Ayers playing a deceptively simple melody on a battered violin with only two of its four strings. It is a disarming tune, naïve even: a major triad venturing harmlessly outward from its central pitch. But after this matter-fact opening, the theme gets harder to sing— as Foxx does throughout the course of the movie—for it then lurches dangerously towards unknown territory.
The encounter between the two men takes place in front of the statue of Beethoven standing in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. The monument’s bronze impassivity masks what Beethoven’s likely response to Ayers monomania would have been: appreciation not only of the ongoing tribute to his oeuvre, but also of the dedication to a single theme. An inveterate sketcher of musical ideas, Beethoven patrolled Vienna and its surrounding countryside always with a tune and its infinite possibilities on his mind, a weight to be unburdened often in the form of large-scale works, monuments to his own obsession.
Longer and more ambitious than the symphonies of Mozart or Beethoven’s teacher Haydn, the Eroica was from its premier in 1804 lauded and criticized for its daring, experimental qualities, its sprawling zeal, indulgent to the point of pathology.
A review written by the editor of the leading German language music periodical, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, inthe months after the work was first heard in Beethoven’s adopted city of Vienna warned that: “This long composition, one extremely difficult to perform, is in reality a tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia. It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized; but often it loses itself in lawlessness. The symphony begins with an Allegro in E-flat that is vigorously scored; a Funeral March in C minor follows which is later developed fugally. After this comes an Allegro scherzo and a Finale, both in E-flat. The reviewer belongs to Herr van Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.”
This could well be taken as a fitting description of Ayers’ troubled trajectory: he has energy and talent, but he has gone badly astray, an exile from the formal dictates of society. Likewise, Rochlitz’s response to the Eroica adumbrates the outward signs of the movie character’s schizophrenia. Ayers is beset by a pathological fascination with the moment: the snatch of melody, the minutiae of opus numbers and dates, the individual letters that make up names. He veers between fragments — the aesthetic diagnosis of musical fantasy descended into chaos.
Respectful of the volatile power of music over the human psyche, Rochlitz himself was interested in the musical forms of mental illness portended by uncontrolled fantasy, a tendency embodied most grandiosely in the Eroica. In the same summer that the Eroica received its premiere, and a few months before Rochlitz reviewed the work, he made a trip to an insane asylum in his native Leipzig to hear a musical genius incarcerated there. Rochlitz begins his essay, “Visit to a Madhouse,” with a chilling admission: “Most living people held for me exactly the interest that the dead have for an anatomist, and it often pained me that one could not once take a truly significant mind with a pair of forceps and put it under a microscope.”
Rochlitz has come to the institution to hear the musical outpourings of a crazed fantasist, whom he simply refers to as “Karl.” A disturbing mixture of timidity and haughtiness, Karl refuses to play for Rochlitz, so our musical journalist tricks him into thinking he is leaving the madhouse. But after saying goodbye, Rochlitz lurks outside the half-opened door and eavesdrops on the bizarre course of what Karl thinks is his private fantasizing at the piano. Rochlitz would later print in his journal the fragments he transcribes. The performance that these transcriptions relate holds up a distorted mirror to the accepted rules of musical logic and mental coherence. Karl stalks around his piano, then rushes to the keyboard to play bold flourishes prone to twisted repetitions and breathless digressions. These abruptly give way to invocations in recitative style and devastatingly lyrical utterances of pure sentiment. He hammers out angry, but harmonically logical, chords, before jumping up as if in sudden recognition that his music is not only a symptom of his illness but its cause.
Rochlitz’s account of Karl evokes contemporary reports of Beethoven’s reluctant, even scornful, improvising at parties or for uninvited visitors, often forcing them to adopt similarly covert listening tactics in order to follow the genius of his musical fantasy away from the light of reason into the dark interior of his mind. Rochlitz’s essay could also serve as outline of the screen version of Nathaniel Ayers: rather than a hostage to his own demonic improvisations as Karl is, Ayers is enslaved to Beethoven’s fantasy.
After Lopez befriends Ayers, and then begins writing about him in the L. A. Times, the columnist procures for him a fine cello, the instrument that got Ayers into Juilliard, and had promised a way out of inner city Cleveland before mental illness eventually derailed his dreams. Like “Karl,”, Ayers is a Soloist, and rather than enjoying a good-paying job which his talent and perseverance might well have won him in a symphony orchestra, he holds forth under echoing overpasses to the accompaniment of the city’s relentless traffic.
With trust building between the two men, Lopez convinces Ayers to join him for a rehearsal of the Eroica by the LA Philharmonic; Lopez had tickets to the concert itself, but Ayers refuses to go out of pure fear, agreeing only to attend a rehearsal because they’ll be in the hall without the threatening presence of thousands of others all around. With some further prodding and a concession on Lopez’s part that Ayers cannot leave his all his worldly belongings unattended, the pair pushes Ayer’s shopping cart at maximum speed alongside and over the moats of freeways and up through the titanium contours of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just in time to hear Beethoven’s fantasy masquerading as symphony unleash its dark power. Here British director Joe Wright, a self-styled Hollywood outsider, transports us into Ayers’ mind with a series abstract, amorphous images that fill the screen to Beethoven’s music—a detour into fantasy unexampled in big budget buddy films and biopics. Ayer’s ecstasy at Beethoven’s music is in this way rendered as bliss in bright colors. That this homage not only to the abstract animations of Disney’s original Fantasia of 1940 but also the more recent Beethoven’s Fifth of their Fantasia 2000 takes place in Disney Hall is a quite a funny joke, though one might object that it uses a street person as a prop for this groovy directorial excess—a Gesamtkunstwerk of product placement and Disney branding.
To the movie’s credit, Beethoven’s Fifth, the composer’s most famous work and one whose victorious final movement is often taken to represent the composer’s personal triumph over impending deafness, is never heard. Nor are the pastoral strains of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a piece which animates those Technicolor fauns and nymphs of the original Disney Fantasia. The only suggestion of picturesque Beethovenian nature we get in The Soloist is itself a parody: the disaster of Lopez’s lawn devastated by raccoons in spite of his defensive measures involving bursting bags of coyote urine. We never even see what green remains of this patch of the pastoral since we only visit the place at night.
In spite of Joe Wright’s protestations that he refused to let Ayers be portrayed as a savant, the film falters from clinical precision worthy of Rochlitz. In his columns Lopez admitted that Ayers didn’t allways hit the right notes, but in the movie he does. He moves from the two-string violin to the cello without a hitch. The instrument is always in tune, and so is his playing. However necessary this may have been for purposes of dramatic compression it is hardly truthful. Ayers’ schizophrenia may be ugly but the music never is, even after a night on the street and years away from one’s instrument. In this subtle but crucial way the film falls prey to a dangerous transcendentalism: not only does Ayers come off as a profoundly troubled genius for whom Beethoven offers, if not a cure, then cinematic redemption. The movie ends with Lopez and his ex-wife, Ayers and sisters sitting amongst a formally dressed audience at Disney Hall listening again to Beethoven. Other carefully placed people of color—more than than what one would expect at such events—come into view as Wright’s camera pulls back. Even if not fully integrated into a society, Ayers can now fantasize amid a larger public, and this integration is now more important than the spectral wanderings of his mind that precipitated the earlier abstract color fest. Ayers’ androgynous get-up is enough to show his continued outsider status. Thus the movie finds its way inevitably to Hollywood’s homeport of redemption.
Following, if unwittingly, in Rochlitz’s footsteps, Steve Lopez wrote in his column of 2005 introducing his “Karl”— Nathaniel Ayers — to L. A. Times’ readers: “Nathaniel was shy in our first encounter a few months ago, if not a little wary. He took a step back when I approached to say I like the way his violin music turned the clatter around downtown L. A.’s Pershing Square into an urban symphony.” When Lopez finds the Soloist again it is near that tunnel. Spirits buoyed by his unshakeable love for music, Ayers declares that: “It is beautiful here.” That Beethoven’s statue and its most dedicated follower, Nathanial Ayers, are condemned to this urban wasteland provides the most powerful message of the film: with nature gone fantasy offers the last refuge.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org