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Mentally ill musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is subject of movie
Here in Cleveland, he was simply Tony, the guy who walked with a cello.
That was before a newspaper columnist found Nathaniel Anthony Ayers living on the streets of Los Angeles and befriended him, introducing him to millions of people through a series of moving columns.
And before the schizophrenic virtuoso's life story became the center of a Hollywood movie, which will film scenes from his childhood briefly in Cleveland this month.
For about 20 years, Ayers was a familiar sight on Mayfield and Lee roads on the East Side, known to thousands of drivers as a seemingly disturbed, somewhat disheveled man who lumbered up and down the sidewalks lugging his cello case adorned with an autograph from Yo-Yo Ma.
In those days, Ayers would march around, his body streaked with paint, wearing a helmet and shouting until someone called the police to usher him home.
Or, on a warm day, he might solo in a curbside concert on a suburban street corner.
Passion for music drove Ayers and gave him his sudden celebrity. In the movie, his life will swell with crescendos of brilliance and promise and the dissonance of mental illness.
There he is in 1966, tucked away in a practice room while the Hough riots rage outside. That's him playing his way into the Juilliard School in the 1970s. Then he's back home, just out of a mental hospital, walking for miles along Mayfield Road to get a few hours of free practice time in his favorite studio. And decades later, he's homeless, in the shadow of a Beethoven statue, adding to the urban symphony of L.A.'s Pershing Square with a two-stringed violin.
In Pershing Square, in 2005, newspaperman Steve Lopez first met Ayers and heard his music. He made it a mission to rescue Ayers. And Ayers taught him a few lessons along the way. Lopez's columns about their relationship drew Hollywood's interest and are the basis for "The Soloist," with Jamie Foxx playing Ayers.
Onscreen, Los Angeles is where the story will begin. But images of Cleveland's bridges and snowy sidewalks will be the backdrop for the tale of a young classical music prodigy, whose life is invaded by the very unsymphonic racket of mental illness.
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