Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Love & Mercy

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The other night I was casting around looking for something—anything—on television and landed on a PBS fund-raising version of "SoundStage" featuring "Brain Wilson and Friends," in conjunction with the release of his new album "No Pier Pressure" (heh...the promo is below) and the opening vocal harmony ("Our Prayer" from "Smile") raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It had the "Beach Boys" sound of blended harmonies, but had a melancholy, respectful air that moves the soul, a heady miasma of nostalgia and renewal. It's a revelation. Wilson, back in the time of "The Beach Boys," had far more "reach" than his fellow band-mates, who might have been content with surfing and car songs. But, while they were out on tour protecting the brand, recycling their hits over and over, Wilson moved beyond singer-songwriter and became what he was unofficially, anyway: producer. It was Wilson who came up with those "pet" sounds, odd combinations of instruments and timbres with their bizarre harmonics...that worked. It was revolutionary stuff, but had a childhood relatability that invited you in and imprinted themselves in your mind. His songs never go away...from the mind, from the heart, leavened with a look backwards, of nostalgia, upbeat still, but with grace-notes of regret.

Wilson is our Mozart—if Mozart had written about California beaches, girls and bikinis (which I'm sure he would have if he was ever made aware of them). Wilson's music was always several cuts above the standard "Beach Boys" fare, as his songs were fueled by serotonin, as opposed to testosterone. There was ambition in his songs, in the conception and production of them, ambitions that might not have been accepted in the pop marketplace of the '60's. But that is speculation. After the disappointing sales of his produced "Pet Sounds" album, (rebounded by the #1 hit status of the first release ("Good Vibrations") from their in-production album "Smile," band dissension, nervous record exec's and Wilson's own building insecurities scuttled what was to be the band's (and Wilson's) most ambitious album. For Brian Wilson, it led to creative roadblocks and a deep-ended wipe-out into a depression that he would not emerge from for years.
Wilson's story of his fall into and rise out of that depression is the make-up of Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad (he's only directed one other feature) and written by Oren Moverman, who also wrote I'm Not There, the episodic Todd Haynes film "about" Bob Dylan, where different actors played aspects of the singer. A simplified version of the same approach is done in Love & Mercy, where Paul Dano plays Wilson pre-breakdown and John Cusack plays him post-breakdown. The results are mixed. But, one thing that is for certain is the eerie way Dano nails Brian Wilson in the heady days of The Beach Boys' success in the 1960's and his subsequent troubles. Dano resembles Wilson, he sounds like him, and captures the puppy-dog optimism of Wilson that percolated through his early songs and melodies, that could easily be shattered in a family crisis, which was inevitable as most of his band-mates were brothers or cousins, his father was their manager and estranged from the boys' mother.  
Director Pohlad changes his style in the two movie sections, as well. The Dano segments switch from drama then zip to home-movie vignettes, like a Richard Lester movie. Cusack's segments are much more straight-forward and have far less energy, except from the fireworks provided by the actors—except Cusack. His Brian Wilson is a bit like a sad-eyed automaton, not entirely the actor's fault as Wilson at the time was being heavily medicated (more about that later), but it creates a fissure in the film that ultimately works against it—the segments post-"Smile" with Cusack just aren't as successful as the parts with Dano.
Evidently, there was a conscious decision between Dano and Cusack to not compare notes after their meetings with Wilson and their impressions of him; the actors playing Dylan in I'm Not There didn't confer, either, but the kaleidoscopic Dylan segments in that film aren't connected in any way—not in time, space, or (for that matter) dimension. Love & Mercy no matter its editing dynamic (in this case, going back and forth in time) is still a linear story—the artist went from here to there—so the two actors, so distinctive in look and style, make for an emotional disconnect. That they are two different stories in the same life—Brian's falling into depression, pre-"Smile"—and his rise out of it, offers no balm in that discomfort, it only enhances it. Having a different actor resolve the conflicts of the other leaves a feeling of a story only half-finished.
Cusack's part of the story is the one that is the most heroic, despite that Cusack is passive throughout (and you don't believe he could play, let alone compose, a lick of music). The purchase of a new car puts him in the orbit of car-dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who doesn't know he's "Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys" (as he will later be introduced)—of course not, he doesn't look a thing like Paul Dano. He's just a guy buying a car, albeit one who leaves a note on her business card saying "Lonely. Scared. Frightened." Before Banks can express her surprise by opening her mouth and blinking twice, into the showroom walks Brian's "minders," as well as Dr. Eugene Landy (played with a glowering malice by Paul Giamatti, acting on all thrusters), who smiles balefully through a tight smile, as he grills Melinda and Brian about what's going on, at the same time his eyes dart back and forth looking for signs of betrayal, his head lowered as if towering above people despite his small stature.
Giamatti's Landy is malevolent piece of work. Festooned in a toupee, he usually starts a conversation by apologizing for his previous behavior, like a bad father trying to retain your good side (and puts him in parallel with Brian's father Murry—played by Bill Camp—both self-important men who end up exploiting and resenting their meal ticket) Landy is Wilson's psychiatrist, life-coach, nutritionist, guru, and disciplinarian, as well as being the current tenant of his house (Brian's in another one and reveals his perpetual silver lining-search by saying "I got to pick my own room.") Landy sees the bond between Melinda and Brian and, in a requested meeting (by him), offers her "unprecedented access—but you've got to work with me." Landy's hold on Wilson is total, controlling what he eats and when, and hectoring Wilson into working at a piano (and taking co-writing credit). He's abusive, humiliating, while keeping his charge dosed on "allergy medications" that leave Wilson nearly catatonic. Landy has had him diagnosed a "paranoid schizophrenic" and while the singer-songwriter does hear voices in his head (usually in harmony), it's a wonder he's not paranoid what with the whole world against him, while lionizing him at the same time.
Except Melinda. For whatever reason, she decides to take on Landy—even when she is banned by him from seeing Wilson. For Brian, it's the end of a long line of using, usery authority figures, and, left alone, he is finally able to think for himself...and what he sees isn't too bad.
It's a great story and truly inspirational for anybody who has suffered clinical depression, as Wilson is an extreme case, crippled by his own need to achieve beyond his limitations and stalemated from being able to reach it, by forces without and within. Yet, there he is, now, in concert before thousands of enraptured fans, mixing old hits and new works (which are great, by the way—check out below) with a band of artists who manage to play his most complicated stuff...and do it live. Wilson finally cracked and completed "Smile" and performed it in concert before committing it to recording and posterity. Amazing. Heroic. He survived his second act and emerged triumphant for a third. His life, itself, is worth a standing ovation, and if Love & Mercy simplifies and homogenizes the depths of his despair for public consumption (as was done with A Beautiful Mind), at least it manages to capture some of the nuances that made the music so memorable the instant it went from Wilson's mind...to ours.

 



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