In 2005, thousands of readers followed a true story that was bizarre, wonderful and heartbreaking all at once. The Los Angeles Times ran a continuing column about a homeless street musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. His story, a struggle for redemption and a testament to the power of friendship, is being adapted into a feature-length film called “The Soloist,” due to hit theaters Apr. 24.
Steve Lopez discovered Ayers while scouring the poverty-stricken streets of L.A.’s Skid Row for a story. The beautiful music emanating from Ayers’s tattered violin captured Lopez’s attention. The more the columnist got to know Ayers, the stranger the information he unearthed about Ayers’s past became. Lopez revealed his side of the story in a recent phone interview.
“What struck me at first was simply that (Ayers) might be a column for me,” Lopez said. “I heard some music and turned and saw what I think any journalist would have seen, which was this striking image of a guy whose story needed to be told.”
He continued, “It was a guy playing classical music really well despite missing two strings on his violin. The obvious question is ‘what is his story, where did this guy get his training, and why does he only have two strings?’ ”
As it turns out, Ayers was once a prodigy at Julliard — yes, the Julliard School of music in New York City.
“I realized it was going to take a while to get the story out of him, so I kept going back to learn more about his past each time,” Lopez said.
Once, Lopez witnessed Ayers scratching a list of names onto the sidewalk. When Lopez asked whose names they were, Ayers revealed they were his Julliard classmates.
Lopez’s conversations with Ayers showed him to be a talented musician who has a deep love for his craft. Lopez described Ayers’s energy as both noble and inspirational.
“The irony is that you can see this man living on the streets, and it’s like, ‘look at that unfortunate soul,’ ” Lopez said. “But he is in many ways happier than any of us will ever be because he’s found it. He’s found true passion in life and it has carried him through every challenge that has been thrown in front of him.”
Indeed, Ayers has had to overcome many challenges, beyond just his living conditions. Despite being a prodigious musician, Ayers is deeply troubled. He suffers from schizophrenia, which factored in his leaving Julliard.
“Every day when he wakes up, it’s another battle to distinguish what’s real and what’s imagined,” Lopez said. “He sees and hears things that I don’t … he’s angry; he’s scared; he lashes out and he’s very ugly and very offensive. But he fights through it and finds his way to the music every day.”
In the screen adaptation, Jamie Foxx will assume the role of the gifted yet agitated Ayers while Robert Downey Jr. will play Lopez. Toward the end of the interview, Lopez coyly teased, “I won’t give it away, but I think the last scene in the movie is one of the most gorgeous, uplifting scenes I’ve seen in a movie in a long time … I want you to be surprised by it.”
If the movie can capture the surprising and peculiar aspects of this true story, then it certainly promises to be a heart-warming, memorable experience.