Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tooting From Greater LA - II

I'm at the NAMI CA conference in Torrance. Above is a seven-second video I shot last night on my iPhone.

That's Nathaniel Ayers you're looking at and listening to. Nathaniel Ayers is "The Soloist," whose life is recounted in Steve Lopez's book of the same name and in a movie of starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.

Mr Ayers was a cellist attending Julliard when he experienced a major psychotic break. He wound up in LA's notorious Skid Row where he lived homeless for more than two decades. Mr Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, discovered him on the streets playing a violin with two strings. What began as a reporter-subject relationship developed into a bond far greater. Steve was able to convince Nathaniel to move into public housing, but had some lessons of his own on how delusional thinking doesn't just apply to those with mental illness. In the end, Steve had to learn to accept Nathaniel for who he was rather than what he would like to turn him into.

Anyway, here we were, sitting down to dinner, when Nathaniel, with no introduction, got up on stage and started playing. Adlibbing. Very much Bach-inspired, but very free form with no breaks for a good 30 minutes.

After dinner, we were told we were going to view an incompleted and shortened documentary, "The Chorus," about life on LA's Skid Row. I braced myself to be bored out of my mind for the next hour, only to encounter the most incredible experience ever from nine years of attending mental health conferences.

The documentary followed six or seven Skid Row residents for several months. Gradually, we got to know these individuals and identify with them. We laughed, we cried, we got outraged, filled with hope, were swept off our feet and hit in the gut.

Then the lights came on and the people responsible for the video and some of the cast, along with Nathaniel Ayers, got up on stage. The image here is from my iPhone. I hope I get the name right here. This is Linda, who was also an extra in "The Soloist" and one of the star attractions in "The Chorus." She is belting out - and I mean really belting out - a Gospel tune.

The documentary is simply too good not to find a distributor. When it comes out, trust me, "The Chorus" is a must-see. As I said, the documentary and the live cast and crew experience, together with Nathaniel Ayers, constituted my most incredible experience in nine years of attending mental health conferences.


Elizabeth said...

Oh, if only I could have been a fly on the wall! Thanks, John. When "The Chorus" does show up in theaters, I'll be among the first to see it.

herb said...

Hi John,

Thanks for sharing this.


mejeba said...

I read Steve Lopez's book and was captivated by Nathaniel, and Steve too, in his efforts to be honest with himself while struggling to help Nathaniel. Sometimes the help was not wanted and he had to learn to back off. As a mother of a grown-up son with a serious mental illness, I've had to learn that lesson well, myself.

What a fine book...what fine people!