Goodbye Solo, the third film from North Carolina native, Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, opens mid-conversation — no establishing shot, no backstory — as a cabbie quarrels with his latest fare. The cab driver, Solo, is a youngish, charismatic Senegalese immigrant played by Ivory Coast native Souleymane Sy Savane, a model and television actor back home making his American film debut. The passenger, William, is a laconic, ill-tempered, aging Southerner played by Red West, the longtime Memphian who got his start as a charter member of the "Memphis Mafia," Elvis Presley's entourage. We care about these characters instantly.
This unlikely pairing animates one of the year's best films. Goodbye Solo's premise — William offers Solo $1,000 to pick him up in 10 days and deliver him to an isolated mountaintop a couple of hours outside of the film's Winston-Salem setting; Solo gradually suspects William is contemplating suicide — is partly inspired by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. The film's feel for urban isolation and cultural assimilation evokes a more sincere, less mannered Jim Jarmusch. But the final product — an expansion on the themes of Bahrani's prior films, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop — is a thing unto itself, driven by its captivating dual-lead performances.
For West, who lived in Memphis until moving to Biloxi a year and a half ago, Goodbye Solo marks his first starring role after 49 years in the business and (according to IMDb.com) 83 film and television credits. He and the film are drawing raves.
"Yes I am," West says when asked if he's been surprised by the film's reception. "I'm thrilled, overwhelmed by it. I feel very fortunate that this script came my way and it all came together. It turned out far and above what I expected."
A high school friend of Elvis', West got into the business when Elvis went Hollywood, first picking up stuntman work on the TV series The Rebel: Johnny Yuma and making bit appearances in more than a dozen Elvis films: an "ice cream vendor" in Clambake, a "poolside guest" in Fun in Acapulco, a "bongo-playing crewman on a tuna boat" in Girls! Girls! Girls!.
By the late '70s and into the '80s, West established himself as a notable character actor with recurring roles in several television series, including Black Sheep Squadron, The Fall Guy, and The A-Team. He's probably best known to current audiences for a supporting role alongside Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, but he has also appeared in films such as Glory Road, Natural Born Killers, and The Rainmaker.
This first lead role seems written-to-order for West, but it came to him unexpectedly.
"Ramin was looking for an older Southern guy, and he called a casting director in Tennessee who had been responsible for me getting a couple of other parts," West says.
The casting director contacted West's wife, Pat, who also serves as his agent, and sent copies of Bahrani's previous films and a portion of the script to read for an audition tape. West was called to North Carolina to rehearse with Savane and was offered the role.
Though he'd appeared in Ira Sachs' Memphis-set Forty Shades of Blue, West hadn't had much experience with the indie world.
"I liked [Bahrani's] other films," West says. "I loved what he'd got for what he had [to work with]. And I liked what I'd read on paper. It was different from anything I'd ever done, plus a starring role, which was great. So I decided to go for it. And I'm glad I did."
The character William is a bit of a mystery — both to Solo and the film's audience. He's mum on his personal life, and his motivations require some guesswork. He's a man of few words, and the weight of his experience and resignation had to be communicated nonverbally.
"He has a life in his face and eyes that you could see without him talking about it. That was critical," Bahrani told the Village Voice about casting West.
"Myself, I've had a knee replacement, I was a stuntman for years, and I'm paying for that now," West says. "I just drew on some personal experiences, watching my mother and aunt in nursing homes, in terrible shape but staying alive. I just thought this character isn't going to end up like that. He's not that kind of guy. I put myself in that place. He's seen the world come tumbling in on him, and he chose this as the alternative."
West also put his personal stamp on the film in one great little scene (a riff on Hank Williams) rooted in a rare improvisation.
"Working with Francis Ford Coppola [on The Rainmaker] and Oliver Stone [Natural Born Killers], they loved improv," West says. "If you could come up with something good other than what's written, they love it. Ramin's a little different. He wrote it and he kind of wants it to stay the way he wrote it, but we got away with that because it works so well."
Though a cultural clash between the aging white Southerner and the younger African immigrant is at the center of Goodbye Solo, one of the most interesting things about the film is the suggestion that in modern Winston-Salem it's the old white guy who is more of an outsider. To borrow an Elvis title, William is a stranger in his own hometown.
Goodbye Solo takes place against a backdrop of concrete, shabby quickie marts, and hip-hop heard from open car windows. Solo, despite his thick accent, has picked up the patter of his adopted home — calling William "big dog" affectionately and flirting with his dispatcher via a "good morning, Porkchop" greeting — and has settled into a local community heavy with African-Americans but which also includes a Latino ex-wife and a precocious stepdaughter.
By contrast, William seems to have no one. Solo's reaction to this predicament is an area where he has not assimilated, which explains his concern for the fate of the old white man in the back of his cab: "Why family don't stay together in America?" Solo asks, peering into his rearview mirror. "If that was in Senegal ... families stay together. Man, we take care of our parents, old people. Even if they don't have teeth in their mouth anymore, we take food and put it in their mouth."
Though a relatively short, simple film, Goodbye Solo is rich with emotion, incident, color, and mystery. Slight on the surface, it grows in the memory and on repeat viewings.
This little indie hit has done wonders for West: "At 72, after 49 years in the business, I've become an overnight success," he says with a chuckle and mentions the many future projects that have come his way as a result. "I've got a horror movie, a western, a sci-fi movie, and a comedy/karate movie."
But the film could do wonders for you too. A modest, low-budget regional film about an immigrant and an old man that's partly modeled after humanistic Iranian art cinema isn't exactly going to put a dint in Star Trek's or Wolverine's box office. But Goodbye Solo and West deserve as much attention as possible. Roger Ebert ended his review with this: "Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town." Speaking for Memphis, I second that.
Opening Friday, May 15th
Red West will conduct a Q&A at the nighttime screening on Friday.