April 25, 2009 / 1:18 PM / 10 years ago

Newspaper columnist takes stage in "The Soloist"

Alex Dobuzinskis

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who is portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in the film "The Soloist", arrives for the premiere of the movie in Los Angeles, California April 20, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Feature film “The Soloist” opened Friday with a story of music, schizophrenia and homelessness that newspaper columnist Steve Lopez witnessed firsthand after seeing virtuoso Nathaniel Ayers play a two string violin on the street.

Lopez’s series of columns for the Los Angeles Times about Ayers and his 2008 book “The Soloist” became the basis for the movie of the same name, with Robert Downey Jr. playing reporter Lopez and Jamie Foxx as the homeless musician.

The film follows the friendship between Lopez and Ayers that leads to the down-and-out musician experiencing a classical music concert at L.A.’s famed Disney Hall, and starts with a chance meeting on the street.

Lopez turned Ayers into his muse, after finding him playing violin at a downtown L.A. city square and trying to remember a Tchaikovsky piece amid the urban chaos surrounding him.

Inspired by Ayers’ love of music, Lopez rediscovered his own passion for writing.

“I began to think of him as a lucky guy,” Lopez told Reuters. “Because so few people find their purpose in life, find what it’s all about and live their life with a purpose and passion like he does.”

Lopez, who met Ayers in 2005, collected donated instruments for him in the hope that the musician could be convinced to move off the streets, and Lopez worked with a Skid Row organization to get Ayers into an apartment.

Now, Ayers lives off the street and works as a janitor at a Skid Row nonprofit organization in the morning, before picking up one of his 15 instruments (including cello, viola, flute and trumpet) and playing it in the afternoon.


During the filming of “The Soloist,” Ayers gave a concert for the leading actors and 500 homeless cast members at a workshop, said Gary Foster, a producer on the film.

In one piece of advice, the homeless told the filmmakers that if a white man walked onto heavily black Skid Row, street denizens would yell out “Five-0, Five-0,” a reference to cop show “Hawaii Five-O” and a warning that the white man could be an undercover narcotics officer.

That bit of local color is in the movie, Foster said.

Lopez and Ayers both went to the premiere of “The Soloist,” but because of his mental illness Ayers is disturbed by two-dimensional images, and he sat with his eyes closed during the screening, Lopez said.

Soon after Lopez first met Ayers, the musician wrote on a sidewalk the names of his former classmates at the prestigious Juilliard School of music, and for some reason included baseball great Babe Ruth. It’s a strange logic that Lopez said he began to understand from knowing Ayers.

“I think he constantly sees and hears things that I don’t,” Lopez said. “It’s as if every experience he’s had, the memory of it is just within sight.”

Foster said the rapport between Lopez and Ayers is what made the story compelling.

“It’s hard for men to open up and share those kinds of inner emotions with each other,” Foster said.

So far, early reviews are mixed with the film receiving a 61 percent positive rating at review site Rottentomatoes.com. The Wall Street Journal trumpets “Bravo to all concerned,” but Lopez’s own Los Angeles Times said the film’s makers were “settling for standard easy emotions when singular and heartfelt was called for.”

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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