Movie Review: The Soloist

I was kind of down on my luck with the music career thing, so I wanted to see a movie that would inspire me to keep at it. I checked out The Soloist at the library because a friend told me about it, but I had wanted to read the book first before seeing the movie. I went ahead and saw it though because I just wanted to have some inspiration so that every day of practice didn’t feel like a grind.

After seeing this film, I can say it taught me to appreciate my musical playing more. It is based on the true story of double bassist Nathaniel Ayers, who attended Julliard but dropped out after developing symptoms of schizophrenia and suffering a nervous breakdown. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is struggling to keep his job and a good rapport with his coworker and ex-wife Mary. He finds Nathaniel playing a two-stringed violin under a statue of composer Ludwig van Beethoven in downtown Los Angeles. Nathaniel ran away from home after dropping out of Julliard, and is homeless. Steve is just focused on getting an interesting story for the newspaper so he can gain some credibility and feel good about himself, but Nathaniel doesn’t care about everyone else’s ideas of success. Steve contacts everyone who knew Nathaniel at some point: the Julliard Admissions Office, Nathaniel’s sister Jennifer. An elderly woman even donates her cello to Nathaniel (in the film, he plays the cello; in real life he played the double bass).

The movie addresses a lot of important issues: how able-bodied people treat individuals with mental illness, supporting homeless individuals, the idea of a successful music career, and the experiences of black music students in predominantly white spaces. In the film, we flashback to when Nathaniel is at Julliard and he enjoys his time there at first, but then he develops symptoms of schizophrenia and has a hard time getting through his orchestra rehearsal because he hears voices telling him to leave Julliard and that he should give up his dreams. Now of course, actor portrayals of people with mental illness cannot speak for all real-life individual experiences with mental illness (serious props to Jamie Foxx though for going through such a difficult acting process. I was watching the special features of the DVD that talk about the film’s production, and Jamie said this role really took a lot out of him and his emotions because it was such a moving role to play and also was difficult in terms of playing the cello. From lived experience, I can tell you learning cello is no easy feat, so additional props to Jamie).

But at the least, the film shows how hard it can be living with any form of mental illness. There has been this “tortured artist” myth which somehow makes it seem like you have to just have a mental illness to be considered a real artist, that mental illness fosters artistic genius. I remember watching an interview by composer Nico Muhly and he said that people need to stop making it seem that mental illness is the reason behind artists’ genius. It’s not. Having depression is a day in day out struggle, and while we use our art as a means of catharsis, one should never have to go through a suicidal breakdown in order to create meaningful art. Believe me, I’m living proof. Depression actually stifled my creativity. It told me I wasn’t a true artist, that I should give up. Nathaniel’s schizophrenia deters him from playing in front of people, it just straight up ruins his life. It wasn’t until I had learned to treat my depression that I used my past suffering as inspiration for how I express myself when playing music.

The movie also made me think about how we define success as musicians. We typically think of success as making money and playing in front of lots of people in a packed concert hall, and while that is a mainstream definition of success, it’s not the only definition of success. When Nathaniel is with the other members of the LAMP community outside on the steps, his cello playing brings everyone together and lets people have that time and space to relax and contemplate. When Steve is sitting outside with him on the sidewalk and first gives Nathaniel the cello to play, he at first tries to get Nathaniel to stop playing after five minutes but then comes to understand that for Nathaniel, after running away from the competitive environment of music conservatory, music is his home. Music defines Nathaniel’s existence and survival. When he attends the rehearsal at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he feels comfortable because it is just him and Steve instead of lots of people.

However, when Graham Claydon, the principal cellist of the LA Phil, has Nathaniel perform for his first ever recital, Nathaniel flashes back to those tortuous days at Julliard and panics when Graham, a religious man, tries to get him to pray before heading on stage, and flees from Graham and the audience. While I don’t fully relate to Nathaniel, I remember how stressful my first professional orchestra audition was. When I auditioned for my college’s campus orchestra, I didn’t feel nervous because I knew I was going to still join the orchestra, and that the audition was just to determine which seat I would be in for the season. However, before my professional audition, my depression got horrible and my anxiety went through the roof. I cried a lot, I remember feeling dead before the audition, the inner critic telling me I should go jump off a cliff because I would never make it in the orchestra. I still played for the judges and did my best, but I remember still shaking even after the audition. For my second professional audition it wasn’t nearly as bad, but I still felt like I was going to vomit. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding. I know nerves are normal, but while I played I couldn’t shake them. After getting rejected by the orchestra, I stopped playing much and stopped auditioning for orchestras. When I had my first recital in three years, I tried everything I could to stay calm beforehand, but when I got into the small recital hall, I felt once again like I was going to vomit. Nathaniel’s experience playing outside versus playing in a concert hall where everyone’s eyes are on you at all times taught me that we shouldn’t limit venues for classical music to concert halls, and while concert halls are nice, they are not always accessible or pleasant environments for musicians. I think Nathaniel’s experience also reminded me that community is just as important as the individual. Anyone of any career can get wrapped up in ideas of their own success, but classical musicians tend to do this a lot. And for young black musicians, being in spaces where they don’t see anyone who looks like them is a challenging experience, especially if those students deal with both microaggressions and macroaggressions from non-black students. While more orchestras and classical music organizations are addressing the issue of racial diversity, we still need to keep talking about it and recognize each individual black musician’s experience. Of course, every black classical musician can’t speak for each other’s experiences; some may feel okay in predominantly white spaces, other black classical musicians may have had terrible experiences. Racial diversity in classical music is a topic that I have been thinking about for some time, and I want to continue educating myself and talking about it.

Noa Kageyama wrote this piece called “Do Classical Musicians Get More Nervous Than Non-Classical Musicians (And If so, Why?)” and he explores performance anxiety in classical musicians versus non-classical musicians. Researchers did this study and found that while classical musicians experienced more performance anxiety and had less fun performing in front of people, they enjoyed practicing a lot. Most likely because when you’re a classical musician in a traditional music setting, you go off to a practice room by yourself, practice a few hours or more, and then you go out to perform. And of course, musicians of other genres do spend quite a bit of time on their craft, but they mainly focus on their performance experience and how to brush off nerves when performing. It’s why I enjoyed playing with orchestra or chamber music ensembles though because the focus was never on myself but on how the group functioned. Practicing is of course important, but if you get wrapped up in the idea of being perfect or good enough for people, or how you measure up to other musicians, it becomes more of an egotistical thing rather than doing the work of making music. We always need to strive for improvement, but when you’re going through a rough patch you want to transcend the idea that you should only play perfectly and just play music because you love it. Nathaniel, being away from the uptight music environment of college, gets to have a genuine human interaction with the composers he admires through playing his music outside of the concert hall. He isn’t worried about success, he loves playing music for its own sake, not to show off his talent or make lots of money. I think that when you transcend that ego-centered state of “Is everyone going to like my music?” you feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually better.

Now of course, I don’t want to romanticize Nathaniel being homeless. In fact, things are seeming to get problematic with regard to legislation around homelessness. Just yesterday Steve Lopez wrote a piece about how the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, wasn’t following up on his promises to address homelessness in the city with concrete solutions. Even though the L.A. government spent $16 billion to address the homeless population, homelessness still has increased by 16 percent. Lopez presents alternatives that organizations have used to provide access to resources for homeless people, such as SHARE, a nonprofit that finds homes for people and helps them move into these homes and find employment. Even though these programs like SHARE help, City Hall doesn’t provide much support, so it’s hard for them to expand. Now, as Lopez points out, Garcetti has been taking lots of initiative to address the increasing homeless population in L.A and has fought tirelessly for more funding and more housing. Moreover, the power is divided between city and county agencies, so Mayor Garcetti can’t just do what he wants all the time. However, Lopez says that Garcetti should keep searching for other ways to address the homeless population and get at the true roots of the problem, such as access to mental health resources.

Even though the film The Soloist came out a decade ago, it is still relevant to discussions on injustice, and has encouraged me to do more as a musician to bring social justice to the people. And here is an NPR piece on the book and film adaptation.

The Soloist. 2009. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.

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