The Soloist (Movie Tie-In): A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

By Steve Lopez
Publisher:Berkley Trade, (9/30/2008)

Average Rating:
5.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)

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Now a major motion picture—“An intimate portrait of mental illness, of atrocious social neglect, and the struggle to resurrect a fallen prodigy.” (Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down)

This is the true story of journalist Steve Lopez’s discovery of Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers’s music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy’s life—only to find that their relationship has had a profound change on his own life.
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greatreads's thoughts on "The Soloist (Movie Tie-In): A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music"
updated on:4/21/2009

Awesome book.


"The Soloist (Movie Tie-In): A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music"
By Steve Lopez

Average Rating:
5.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

  • When they first meet, Steve looks at Nathaniel as a compelling story for his newspaper, one that has the potential to bring attention to the inhabitants of Los Angeles’s Skid Row. What do you think compels him to continue to take on responsibility for Nathaniel’s wellbeing following the initial article?

  • Although Steve didn’t enter into his relationship with Nathaniel looking for either a friend or a musical teacher, he winds up with both. Discuss how their relationship progressed from writer-subject to the friendship the two men now enjoy. Is there a turning point in their relationship that you can identify? Have you experienced something similar in your own life?

  • Classical music is a much a ‘character’ throughout the book as any of the people. For Nathaniel, the music he plays at times can help to keep his illness at bay. Do you believe that these creative kinds of therapy can ever be a replacement for anti-psychotic drugs? How does Nathaniel’s love of music eventually begin to influence Steve?

  • From their first meeting, Steve and Nathaniel both have an impact on each others’ lives that is almost palpable and touches the lives of the people around them. Discuss the ways in which their relationship becomes not only a catalyst for change in their lives but also the lives of others.

  • Upon visiting Disney Hall for the first time, Nathaniel comments “It’s like a dream. I don’t know if it’s a dream or purgatory (p. 114)”. Steve ruminates upon this comment for a moment, finally accepting it as is. Discuss what you think Nathaniel means by this. Do you think there’s any deeper meaning to it, or do you agree with Steve’s assessment?

  • One of Steve’s goals in the book is to shed light on the homeless situation on Skid Row and the mental health problems that most of the people there suffer, going into some depth regarding different forms of therapy and medication. How do you think families should handle a mentally ill relative? Do you think it is okay to force treatment on a person? Are there any instances that could change your mind?

  • Readers begin to donate instruments and money almost immediately following Steve’s first article. What do you think compels people to help a stranger? Do you believe that people would have been as eager to help Nathaniel had Steve not written about him and his plight? Why or why not? What do you think this says about human nature in general?

  • Nathaniel attended Julliard during the 1960s, when its students were predominately white. How much do you think the pressures of being one of the only African-American students at Julliard contributed to Nathaniel’s breakdown?

  • After Steve’s articles are published, the mayor of Los Angeles visits Skid Row with him to see it firsthand. Discuss whether or not you think he’d have made this visit without Nathaniel’s story as a catalyst. Would a series of articles that simply focused on the homeless in Los Angeles as a group been as effective?

  • On page 139, Nathaniel states “I can’t survive if I can’t hear the orchestra the way I like to hear it.” Do you agree with Steve’s assessment that, in a variety of ways, Nathaniel is freer as a man than most ‘regular’ people? Do you think it’s possible for people to live unfettered by society without living outside of its confines?

  • Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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    From Publishers Weekly
    Starred Review. Scurrying back to his office one day, Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, is stopped short by the ethereal strains of a violin. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Juilliard, but that various pressures—including being one of a few African-American students and mounting schizophrenia—caused him to drop out. Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop his musical talent and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia (at one point, Lopez arranges to have Ayers take cello lessons with a cellist from the L.A. Symphony). Throughout, Lopez endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel's case, questions his own motives for helping his friend and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity. With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope. (Apr.) 
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

    From The Washington Post

    Reviewed by Daniel J. Levitin

    In 1980 I entered the Berklee College of Music, a fiercely competitive and, I soon discovered, disorienting program for musicians. The disorienting part was this: Although I had been the best saxophone player in my high school, I was barely average in music school.

    On the commute home every evening I found no consolation. In every doorway, tunnel and subway station in Boston, there were great musicians: Even the bums were virtuosi. As Steve Lopez wryly observes in The Soloist, in music there is always someone better than you, someone with more time to practice, more willing to do without a meal, an extra hour of sleep, even a bed if that will get him closer to his dreams.

    Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, first happened upon Nathaniel Ayers "dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it's been pulled from a dumpster." The guy sounded "pretty good." Later Lopez found out that Ayers had been a classmate of cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Julliard in the 1970s until he suffered a schizophrenic breakdown. Forced to leave school, Ayers ended up performing on Skid Row in Los Angeles, all but oblivious to the surrounding muggers, drug addicts, prostitutes and sewer rats.

    The Soloist begins as "the tale of a man, stunned by a blow thirty years earlier, who carries on with courage and dignity, spirit intact." But it delivers far more as we follow Lopez's attempts to help Ayers bring a modicum of discipline to his life and music. Several readers of Lopez's column send musical instruments for Ayers, but Lopez becomes haunted by the idea that he may be doing the musician more harm than good, that the new bounty will increase the chances of his getting mugged or beaten to death. Lopez struggles with questions of how much autonomy should be accorded the mentally ill. To be sure, Ayers doesn't handle his life the way Lopez would (or wants him to), but the issue keeps coming up: To what extent does one individual have the right to try to influence another? When we try to help someone "for their own good," do we really know better than they what will ultimately make them happy?

    Lopez arranges for a room in a nearby shelter to be designated as a de facto instrument locker, so that Ayers doesn't have to lug everything around in an easy-to-rob shopping cart. He tries to get Ayers into therapy and to spend at least one night a week in a homeless shelter. Ayers's own suspicions (some of them well-justified) and fierce independence thwart attempts to "mainstream" him. Lopez arranges for Ayers's estranged sister to visit from another state. The reunion is not without disappointment for all concerned. Each small victory toward bringing the homeless genius closer to normalcy is met with a backlash or a downward slide, paranoia and gratitude living in an uneasy alternation. Lopez hangs on, driven by the conviction that one more kind word, one more small intervention, will finally snap Ayers back into the real world.

    Lopez is a natural storyteller, giving us a close-up view of the improbable intersection of musicianship, schizophrenia, homelessness and dignity. The result is a surprisingly lively page-turner, propelled by the close friendship developing between these two men and filled with eloquent passages: "Nathaniel isn't alone. Music is an anchor, a connection to great artists, to history and to himself. His head is filled with mixed signals, a frightening jumble of fractured meaning, but in music there is balance and permanence."

    Scientists are just beginning to discover how music heals, through its boosting of immunoglobulin (IgA) levels and regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Although this is not Lopez's focus, he beautifully conveys the effect that music can have on the battered soul of a true musician, a soul fighting to be heard through the din of dementia that crowds out the most perfect of human languages. Ayers, Lopez writes, "tucks the violin under his chin, blocks out the roar of traffic and leaves the known world. He scratches around a bit, chasing after ideas that aren't quite coming together, but then, as always, he finds a passage that works like a drug and the music pushes him free of all distraction. Eyes closed, head tilted to the heavens, he's gone."

    The connection between the comfortable middle-class writer and the Skid Row musician is one of mutual respect and, to some extent, healthy suspicion. A new theory on the durability of music in our species helps explain their relationship: Called the honest signal hypothesis, it argues that music is a form of pure emotional expression and that it exists because it is a more honest signal than speech. In other words, it is more difficult to fake sincerity in music than in language. Lopez writes that he deals "too often with people who are programmed, or have an agenda, or guard their feelings. Nathaniel is a man unmasked, his life a public display. We connect in part because there is nothing false about him." Perhaps the reason there is nothing false about Nathaniel is that his mind, his heart, his life are music.

    Nathaniel's honest signal ends up touching all who hear him play, culminating in a much anticipated and beautifully rendered meeting with Yo-Yo Ma, his famous Julliard classmate. The Soloist goes a long way toward explaining the workings of the musical mind, albeit one tragically touched by madness. It doesn't shy away from exploring the failures of governmental programs and mental health services for the needy, but it does so without preaching and finger-pointing. It doesn't editorialize; like good music, it just is.

    Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

    From Booklist
    *Starred Review* On the streets of the inner city, Los Angeles Times columnist and novelist Lopez (In the Clear, 2003) stumbled upon the story that changed his life. Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless African American man, was standing on a corner coaxing memorable music from a two-stringed violin. Turns out, 30 years earlier, Ayers had been at Juilliard studying classical bass when he experienced the first in a series of schizophrenic episodes that turned his musical dreams into a nightmare. Now, worlds away from the concert halls he imagined gracing, Ayers spends his days on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, fighting off rats and drug-frenzied fellow homeless—and serenading passersby. The spot where Ayers has chosen to play is no accident; it’s near the city’s statue of Beethoven and just down the hill from Walt Disney Concert Hall. Lopez quickly becomes an integral part of Ayers’ life, bringing him new instruments and even facilitating arrangements at a homeless shelter. But as he navigates the complex world of mental illness, Lopez discovers that good intentions (and good connections) are often powerless in the face of schizophrenia, a potent, prickly, unpredictable disease. Award-winning actors Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are set to star in a movie version of this compelling, emotionally charged tale of raw talent and renewed hope. --Allison Block --This text refers to theHardcover edition. 

    “Lopez is a terrific reporter. The Soloist is poignant, wise, and funny.”
    —Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

    “A heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful, read.” 

    “An utterly compelling tale.”
    —Pete Earley, author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness

    “With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose, and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope.” 
    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    “Compelling and gruffly tender…Lopez deserves congratulations for being the one person who did not avert his eyes and walk past the grubby man with the violin.”
    —Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for the Los Angeles Times 

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    Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where he first wrote a series of enormously popular columns about Nathaniel Ayers.

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