A friend loves at all times,
and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
As in Resurrecting the Champ, this fact-based film tells the story of a journalist who befriends a home less man, thereby becoming involved far more than he had intended in the life of another person. Di rector Joe Wright and writer Susannah Grant, along with an extraordinarily talented cast, have gifted us with an inspiring movie, even though its ending is far more sobering than the usual such bio-picture. I suspect that when Oscar speculation rises in volume this coming winter we will be hearing the names of either Jamie Foxx or Robert Downey, Jr.—and maybe both.
In this fictional version reporter Steve Lopez is a troubled man, once so wrapped up in his profession that his marriage to the fellow journalist who is now his boss has disintegrated. His newspaper, like so many, is being downsized, and his creative well has become so dry that he wonders why he had once so loved his craft. Then he spies on the streets of L.A. a man more troubled than he, a homeless man with a shopping cart stuffed with junk. The man is playing a violin, out of which is pouring the sublime music of Beethoven. Actually, it is not in the streets, but beneath an overpass that the man is playing—not for handouts, but purely for himself, as the only passers-by are sealed in their cars whizzing by. Lopez has had to stop and get out of his car to hear the music, and when he introduces himself, he learns that there are but two strings on the battered violin.
The homeless man is Nathaniel Ayers, speaking rapidly, sometimes incoherently, and seldom making eye contact. At one point when a jet liner flies above them Nathaniel thinks that Lopez is up there. The journalist might have gone on, but when Nathaniel mentions having studied at Julliard, his reporter’s interest is aroused. Back at the newspaper office he asks a research assistance to check on the Julliard connection. At first the response is negative, but further probing reveals that Nathaniel, once a child prodigy, had enrolled but had dropped out after two years because of his mental illness. Lopez returns to the district, and finding his subject again, begins a relationship that will change both of their lives.
Writing with his old passion again, the journalist’s story draws the interest of his readers, one kind woman sending in her cello, Lopez revealing that it was the larger instrument that had been Nathaniel’s main instrument (actually there were quite a few cellos and violins donated). The one article becomes a series, making Nathaniel a minor celebrity. Lopez brings the cello to Nathaniel, but though schizophrenic, the homeless man has enough pride left that he does not want charity. The journalist convinces him that it is a gift: he also suggests that the valuable instrument would be safer in an apartment—no, a studio, he says when Nathaniel strongly objects that he does not need an apartment. Lopez quickly discovers how difficult it is to help another human being, that there is something at Nathaniel’s core that resists being used or manipulated because of a need for freedom or autonomy—something that all too many who try to help the poor forget.
The reporter becomes a frequent visitor to The Lamp, a shelter and drop-in center for homeless people, where David, a counselor, becomes a frequent adviser to Lopez.. David not only cares for his charges, but he understands their need for autonomy, pointing out to the sometimes frustrated visitor that Nathaniel will accept help only on his own terms. Matters go fairly smoothly when Lopez helps Nathaniel gain admission to hear the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra rehearse, especially as the music is Beethoven’s. The scene initially is played for its humor, Nathaniel insisting that he take his precious grocery cart along, though he does agree to leave it outside.
However, when Lopez arranges for the lead cello player of the Philharmonic to listen to his friend play and then offer lessons, Nathaniel’s illness throws up obstacles that almost ruins things. Lopez is even attacked by the upset man at one point, thus driving home how dangerous a schizophrenic person can become. Rebuffed, he is almost ready to give up, but support from both David and his ex-wife, plus his own desire to be of help, win out.
David’s advice is especially of help—sometimes all you can do for another troubled person is to be his friend. Just how good a friend we see in this film, with glorious music that is an appropriate accompaniment. There are frequent aerial shots of the city—of its throughways with the graceful curves of its exits and intersections; of rows of houses and buildings, all displaying a harmony that contrasts with the noisy chaos of the city’s denizens living on the surface. Lopez speaks of God, and Nathaniel says that he (Lopez) is my god. Although this is the ranting of an ill man, theologically we might agree with him as we recall that Jacob said to his estranged brother Esau when the two were reconciled, “for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” It is through Lopez that God, in the words of the psalmist, “lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.”
For reflection/Discussion 1. How is this the story of two, not just one, troubled people? There is little sugar coating: compare this film, especially the climatic concert with the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, with its over the top ending.
2. What have you learned about helping another person: how much of you does it require? What does Steve Lopez learn about “fixing” things? Not always possible on one’s own terms, is it? In your own experience in helping others, who gained the most—the other person or yourself?
3. What support do we see for both men in the film? From the newspaper readers; from The Lamp; from the music community?
4. Why do you think the filmmakers used so many aerial shots of the city? What do you think was their purpose?
5. How is music in the film both a connecting and a healing agent—at least healing as far as is possible in the case of Nathaniel?
6. Though not emphasized, what role does faith have in the lives of the characters, especially seen in scenes shot at The Lamp. What do you think is the significance of the name of the agency?
7. For two films that show more of the plight of the homeless see The Saint of Ft. Washington and God Bless the Child.