Saturday, July 11, 2015

Salvation: Love & Mercy

"The Beach Boys propagated their own variant on the American dream, painting a dazzling picture of beaches, parties and endless summers, a paradise of escape into private as often as shared pleasures...Yet by the late Sixties, the band was articulating, with less success, a disenchantment with that suburban ethos, and a search for transcendence."
–  Jim Miller in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (Random House, 1980).

Is it any wonder that Los Angeles is known as "the City of Lost Angels"? It's the place where sellouts go to bask in the sun, and shady deals get made under palm trees. Never mind that L.A. was the corruptible home of Raymond Chandler's incorruptible detective Philip Marlowe, it was also where Annie Hall was seduced away from Alvy Singer in Woody Allen's hit comedy. Los Angeles may be a tinsel town, a superficial jewel and pleasure palace, but its endless summers hold out a paradoxical promise. Songwriter Brian Wilson successfully depicted the seductive charms of that promise in The Beach Boys' best early music ("I Get Around," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls"), but when he tried to grow past the adolescent whims of what Jim Miller called that "paradise of escape," even calling it into question in the aching "Don't Worry Baby," Wilson was unable to take the band successfully into adulthood. The hedonistic thrill of The Beach Boys would, by the end of the Sixties, ironically become associated with the apocalyptic horrors of Charles Manson.

In the astonishingly good Love & Mercy, a biographical drama about Brian Wilson, first-time feature director Bill Pohlad crafts a dazzling picture of the promised land Wilson sought in his music. By taking us into the sound of his records and contrasting them with the timbre of his psyche, Pohlad dips boldly and imaginatively into Wilson's life with the breakneck zeal of a collage artist in heat. In creating a movie for the ears, as well as for the eyes, Pohlad assembles the puzzle pieces of his tale in a refreshingly open-ended style that embraces both experimental and conventional narrative forms, which is why Love & Mercy isn't a typical musical biography of a tortured genius, or the conventional story of a disturbed man redeemed by love (as Ron Howard's fraudulent A Beautiful Mind was).Yet it has all those elements at play within it. But the dramatic textures of the story functions like a vivid kaleidoscopic mirror. It's told in a parallel narrative which depicts two different periods in Brian Wilson's life: the recording of Pet Sounds and Smile in the mid-Sixties where Wilson began to break from the celebration of the California surf heard in "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," and the late Eighties, when Wilson lived in isolation away from The Beach Boys and under the dubious care of Dr. Eugene Landy, who exercised a Svengali-like control over him until Melinda Ledbetter came into his life. Brian Wilson's fractured personal world only synergizes into one when he finds salvation in his songs.

For a first time director, Pohlad (who produced The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave and Brokeback Mountain) shows a remarkable dexterity in the storytelling (helped along by a dense, yet beautifully layered script by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman). Rather than simply chronicling the story of the rise to success of The Beach Boys, Pohlad takes us inside the process of Wilson's early songwriting and we see and hear the later studio sessions (with "The Wrecking Crew") that produced Pet Sounds and the aborted and glorious mess of Smile. The purpose of doing this is not only to have us hear this mad genius at work in the creation of those transcendent songs, but also to contrast that process with the grim reality of Wilson's troubled life, where we watch him brutalized both by a jealously violent and controlling father (played with creepy precision by Bill Camp) and undermined by his cousin, band mate Mike Love (Jake Abel) who resists abandoning the surf music that made The Beach Boys famous. By continually shifting back and forth through time, Love & Mercy contrasts Wilson striving for transcendence with the desolate loner pining for contact in his later years. The impact is both moving and wounding to watch.  

None of this would even be possible if Pohlad didn't show such remarkable skill with the actors (which becomes an even more admirable task given the very structure of the picture itself). In the early Sixties section, Wilson is played by Paul Dano who calls up with an uncanny resemblance Wilson's dreamy fugue states that would lead him to write such indelibly romantic songs like "Good Vibrations." But in the later Eighties period he's portrayed by John Cusack, who holds a broken mirror to the damaged soul Dano's Wilson was fighting for earlier in the Sixties section. While neither actor literally resembles the other, Pohlad is able to establish a unity of soul across time – another kind of synergy –  that is comparable in some ways to what Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro did playing Don Corleone in different periods in The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. It becomes so clear watching Paul Dano in Love & Mercy why he was so horribly ineffective as the charlatan preacher in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. As an actor, Dano doesn't believably possess the soul of a trickster, but instead he has something of the disassociated spirit of a genial hippie lost in clouds of reefer smoke.When Dano's Wilson explodes in distress at the dinner table, due to his intake of hallucinogens, it comes from the buried recesses of a psychosis he can't understand or control. Dano's gift is for feeling his way into Wilson's distress unlike his crazed sermons from the pulpit in There Will Be Blood which were so self-consciously mannered that they turned helplessly into a parody of quackery.

Brian Wilson on the left with Dano and Cusack on the right

As good as Dano is in Love & Mercy, John Cusack has the more difficult role and he's never been better on the screen. If Dano easily embodies the vulnerable boy who can't grow up to be a man, Cusack perfectly suggests arrested adolescence in the body of an older adult. In his scenes with the car saleswoman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who would later rescue him from Landy and then become his wife, Cusack shows some of the cracked moonstruck tenderness that won audiences over in his role as the teenage Lloyd Dobler in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything. But Lloyd's mooniness derived out of a young outsider's sanity, and it was self-assurance that helped him find the love he desired and embrace his passing from adolescence. But Cusack's Wilson isn't so fortunate. His attempts to connect with Melinda represents a grappling with loose ends of awareness, a longing for contact that is perfumed with regret and loss. (On a dinner date with another couple, he doesn't think twice about bringing up his father's sadism which he recounts calmly while everyone else is recoiling in horror.) Elizabeth Banks (from Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) has the kind of quirky comic timing that is in perfect synch with Cusack's genial eccentricities. Their scenes together have some of the intuitive romantic dazzle that James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan often reached in pictures like The Shopworn Angel and The Shop Around the Corner. Paul Giamatti, as Eugene Landy, one again shows just how resourceful an actor he is. Whether he is playing an enraged struggling novelist (Sideways), or a clever Chief Inspector (The Illusionist), Giamatti is distinctive without ever repeating himself. He plays Landy as a narcissist disguised as healer. He's the kind of con man only southern California produces and Nathanael West wrote about. He needs to live through Wilson in order to validate his own sense of being as being equal to Wilson's genius. When Melinda presents a formidable challenge to Landy's control, he shows her what his control means in some of the most unsettling work this actor has come up with yet.

Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

You could say that Love & Mercy wouldn't have been possible without The Tree of Life, or perhaps Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, which was an impressionistic study of Bob Dylan, but the picture actually improves on both of these ambitious failures. Terence Malick's The Tree of Life was a memoir about growing up in Texas that abandoned conventional narrative in order to create on the screen the elliptical manner in which our memories actually function, but Malick lacks the dramatic sense to anchor the story and make it into a realized experience, whereas Love & Mercy provides a clothesline on which Pohlad can experiment without losing touch with the narrative themes. (Malick is a superb visual stylist who is in desperate need of a good dramatic writer.) While I'm quite fond of I'm Not There, a beautifully made film that illuminates the mysterious masks that Bob Dylan wears, the picture is conceived too self-consciously as an academic thesis. It cleverly displays all his masks without successfully dramatizing why they're there. If you didn't know much about Bob Dylan, it's doubtful if I'm Not There would help solve any mysteries (and it doesn't leave the actors much to play – except for Cate Blanchett who draws on the flamboyance of Tallulah Bankhead to bring out all the androgyny of the mid-Sixties Dylan). Love & Mercy has a thesis, too, but it feels arrived at rather than demonstrated. When Pohlad brings together in time Dano and Cusack, and thereby collapses time, he does something more interesting with the same idea that Stanley Kubrick was celebrated for in his ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Kubrick trafficked in high-minded metaphysics, Pohlad achieves true spiritual transcendence where time doesn't just heal wounds, but reassembles the pieces of the psyche that those wounds shattered.

While the story occasionally wobbles, it doesn't hobble the picture. For instance, we never get inside the making of the 1988 solo album Wilson is working on with Eugene Landy that contains the co-written song "Love & Mercy." If that section of the story had been clarified more we might have seen exactly how Landy was able to control and coerce Wilson. The legal means that Melinda uses with Wilson's family to get Brian away from Landy's clutches is also too vaguely worked out on the screen to make much sense. (Between 1983 and 1986, Landy annually charged $430,000 forcing Brian Wilson's family members to devote their publishing rights to his fee. Landy received 25% of the copyright to all of Wilson's songs, regardless of whether he contributed to them or not. When Wilson's family discovered that Landy had been named as a chief beneficiary in Wilson's will, Brian's cousin Stan Love filed for conservatorship in 1990, and the family soon contested Landy's control of Wilson, ultimately achieving successful legal action in late 1991. Landy died in 2006.) Love & Mercy doesn't go deep enough into how Landy exerted such a grip on Wilson so that he couldn't see he was being swindled and abused. But these are tiny flaws.

Most film biographies of disturbed talents can't resist the most sentimental roads to redemption, but Love & Mercy achieves the same goals without all the sentimentality. One watches the movie and can fully understand the music of Brian Wilson as well as the life that came to shape it. Love & Mercy stirs you with its vision and its daring. It might be one of the few pictures that simultaneously moves you to tears while making you jump for joy.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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