Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

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The Wrecking Crew


Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

(2008) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Cher, Brian Wilson, Mickey Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine, Dick Clark, Carol Kaye, Jimmy Webb, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, H.B. Barnum, Lou Adler, Al Casey, Bones Howe, Don Randi, Snuff Garrett, Bill Pittman, Carmie Tedesco. Directed by Denny Tedesco

When people look at the golden age of rock and roll, there are few better places to turn their gaze to than Southern California in the 60s and early 70s. Some of the most iconic music of the rock and roll era came from that time and place. Bands like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees and so on routinely recorded there. However mostly what they provided was the vocals; the music was actually made by someone else.

They were called The Wrecking Crew, although not by themselves. There were about 20 to 30 main players in the pool of studio musicians that lived in L.A. at the time (the movie lists more than 100) who appeared on the bulk of the albums that came out of the area, including from bands that were made up of actual musicians, like The Byrds.

One of the most respected of them was guitarist Tommy Tedesco. A raconteur with a great sense of humor, Tedesco also had the kind of skill that made him comfortably at home in any style of music. He was also a whiz at Spanish/Mexican guitar. He teamed often with bassist Carol Kaye (one of the few women among the Crew) who was responsible for iconic baselines such as the ones found in the Mission: Impossible theme and on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” Hal Blaine was also one of the most prolific and respected drummers of his time; as he himself recounts, the Crew judged each other not by how many gigs they got because all of them were fully booked, but how many they turned down.

The Crew also worked on movie and television theme songs (the guitar on the Bonanza theme song, for example, was Tedesco). It is actually kind of thrilling to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson play the iconic notes to the theme of The Pink Panther.

None of the Crew craved the limelight and only a few of them really achieved any notoriety, chief among them Glen Campbell who went on to a long career doing country-tinged easy listening music (with such hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Linesman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” many of which utilized his colleagues in the Wrecking Crew) as well as an acting career. They are almost without exception not listed on the albums they played on as musicians. However, their influence has been incalculable; Blaine himself played on seven straight Record of the Year Grammy winners, a feat that has never been duplicated before or since, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But largely the Crew labored in public obscurity, content to play music, collect large checks and shape rock and roll as we know it. The director, Denny Tedesco, is the son of Tommy and started this project in 1996 as a means of tribute to his father, who would pass away a year after he started filming the project although a group interview including his father plays a substantial roll in the documentary. There are also other subjects, like Dick Clark, who were alive when interviewed (and in Clark’s case, unaffected yet by the stroke he suffered in 2004). Campbell himself suffers from Alzheimer’s but was perfectly lucid in his pre-diagnosis days.

There are also interviews with the stars who they worked for. It is interesting to hear Cher, who normally is an effusive and self-confident interview when talking about her latest film project kind of revert to the shy and less confident personality she had when she was first starting out. We also get to see Brian Wilson talk about the Smile sessions that would later become the most famous album never released (although it has since) with some of the tracks showing up on the Pet Sounds album.

The music here is simply unbeatable. Nearly every clip brought a smile to my face. Not all of it was rock and roll; the Crew backed up all sorts of different musicians, including most of the members of the Rat Pack. We can hear Frank Sinatra joking with his daughter Nancy on audio tape taken from the sessions when they recorded “Something Stupid” together. Stuff like that is priceless.

It took Tedesco 13 years to assemble the film and nearly as long to get it released theatrically. As you can gather, getting the rights to use much of the music in the film was a formidable task It took a lot of money that the production didn’t have, so they used Kickstarter to acquire the funds to help them get permission. People of a certain age, however, will certainly appreciate the effort. While the filmmakers don’t really go too much into what the main folks in the Crew thought of their fame or lack thereof, or what happened as the business changed and studio musicians fell out of favor, but that dose of reality would likely have made this a lesser film. There are insights into the time and place of the Crew, but little of themselves. If you’re looking to get a feel for who these people really were, you won’t get much beyond “talented musicians with stories to tell.”

Still, Denny Tedesco wisely lets the music do the talking for them. It’s rare you get a movie where you exit the theater feeling better when you walked in; it’s even more rare when you learn something in the same movie. The Wrecking Crew accomplishes this and it might motivate you to go spend your paycheck on Amazon or iTunes gathering the songs here into your own personal collection, if they aren’t already there. If they aren’t, they should be.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some nice insights into a bygone era of music. Definitely a labor of love and it shows.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really delve into the issue of being “the men (and woman) behind the curtain.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some salty language here and there and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally played at the 2008 Florida Film Festival but took six years after that to get a distribution deal, finally getting a much-deserved theatrical release seven years after it was made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20 Feet From Stardom
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Run All Night