Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Love and Mercy

Brian Wilson has always appeared as an enigma to me.  A man with whom small talk would likely be impossible.  His uncertain demeanor and nervousness suggest that something is a bit off internally.  I've read the accounts of drug abuse and diagnosed schizophrenia.  The extreme paranoia.  For many geniuses, I suppose these are the unfortunate by-products.

"Genius" is a heavy cross to bear, but I think it fits Wilson.  I base this on his music, which has a density and near other-wordliness that is not seen very often.  Go and listen to Pet Sounds, the 1966 album Wilson recorded with the other Beach Boys. This was music with a man's soul laid bare, not merely odes to tasty waves and convertibles.  If you're in the "I wish they'd stuck to bubblegum surfing tunes" camp, you may not like the more ambitious compositions, but there is no denying their breadth and somewhat unprecedented creativity. The harmonies are awfully haunting at times.  This was not stupid music. Perhaps because of that, the album did not achieve gold status as did the previous crowd pleasers.

2015's LOVE AND MERCY, which takes its title from a later Wilson song, is likewise an ambitious and unique bio of Wilson at two stages of his life: the mid to late '60s and the mid '80s.  In between was a period of oblivion, where the artist rarely left his bed and ballooned to three hundred pounds.  This era is alluded to, but not shown in the film.  It may well have been a good decision to leave this to viewers' imaginations, as the potential to create something grotesque and overwrought would've been high.

Director Bill Pohlad, working from a screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, avoids those very sins with his movie.  He makes the film quite cinematic, starting with his use of 16mm film for scenes set in the '60s.  Those studio scenes especially, where Wilson obsessively oversees recording sessions.  Many nostalgic efforts feel too contemporary with their of-the-moment tech.  The wrong tools for editing or color correction (to say nothing of a hackneyed script) would have relegated LOVE AND MERCY to the yet-another-disposable-biopic dustbin, but the filmmakers create something that quite resembles its subject - thoughtful and dreamy.

Notice the way the film takes its time, how it frames the actors.  I really love the first scene between 40ish Wilson (well played by John Cusack) and Cadillac saleswoman/future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, quite good and believable) as they sit in the showroom Caddy.  There's a slightly uncertain rhythm to the scene, mirroring Wilson's behavior.  Ledbetter is intrigued by this unusual guy, even before she discovers his identity.  Their personalities are perfectly realized and set.  When Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti, again amazing) - the manipulative and abusive therapist who takes over Wilson's life- walks in front of the car and breaks the spell, it's the ideal harbinger of things to come.

Then there's Paul Dano. Another remarkable performance.  He not only resembles but really seems to get Wilson in his younger days.  At odds with his brothers and cousin, Mike Love (Jake Abel), over the direction in which to take their music.  Battling with his father, another abuser who allegedly beat Brian so hard he lost most of his hearing in one ear.  Dano really carves out what I would consider a definitive interpretation. Wilson himself agreed.

LOVE AND MERCY is not a perfect movie, as sometimes the attempts to use metaphors get a little too carried away.  Like the clanging cutlery scene at dinner (as an audiologist, I kept wondering if Brian wasn't just suffering from hyperacusis). Or late in the film, when the Beach Boys are standing in a swimming pool.  Brian is in the deep end, encouraging his brothers to join him.  The brothers say they feel more comfortable where they are. Hmmmm.

Postscript: The moments in the recording studio reminded me of the accounts I've read of Steely Dan (i.e. founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and their extreme fastidiousness with session musicians.  Note the violin player on "Good Vibrations" and Wilson's perfectionism on how the bow was struck to create those memorable triplets.  Drummer Hal Blaine (played by Johnny Sneed) is shown lending his chops to Pet Sounds, and actually played on a Steely tune in the '70s.
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