Monday, September 21, 2015

Love & Mercy

The movie begins with an extreme close-up of an ear – Brian Wilson’s ear. This is the ear that Bob Dylan’s says ought to be donated to the Smithsonian after Brian Wilson passes on. Then there’s a young Brian Wilson [Paul Dano], contemplating the source of his musical inspiration. Full of self-doubt, he asks himself “what if I lose it and never get it back?” Was Brian Wilson’s battle with mental illness the spark that spurred him to make his “pocket symphonies to God”? Did his illness enable him to hear sounds in his head that only he could understand and translate into music? Do you have to be crazy to create good art?

One Sunday morning in August, Carol and I were watching CBS Sunday Morning. About halfway through the program, there was a blurb about Brian Wilson. This program doesn’t have musicians I like unless they have something new to sell, and this time it was no different. Except that instead of one new thing to sell, there were two. The first thing was Brian’s new album, No Pier Pressure. The second was a movie about Brian Wilson’s life, titled Love & Mercy. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for theaters where it might be showing. I went to Newport News, Virginia for a week on business. The closest showing was in Washington DC. Then I took my son Greg back to college in Colorado. The movie wasn’t there. Then I was in Baltimore for two weeks – still no joy. Then last weekend while searching through the newest releases on Pay Per View, there it was. Finally!

Love & Mercy [the title of a song from Brian Wilson's first solo album] is a well-done movie about the struggles of Beach Boy mastermind Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson’s struggles with drugs and mental illness are well-documented. Some of the episodes that happened are such that the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” comes to mind. Unlike most musical biopics, this movie looks at two specific periods of Brian Wilson’s life – the 1960s and the 1980s. Instead of running completely through one period and then on to the other, the film volleys between the two eras. Paul Dano is the young Brian Wilson, who is quite convincing. John Cusack is the 1980s version of Brian Wilson. For the first time in I don’t know how long, John Cusack acts in this movie. He’s playing someone else instead of John Cusack. Dano and Cusack don’t look remotely like each other, but that’s a small complaint. Dano plays the childlike innocence angle very well, who had the determination to be better than the Beatles, but who is also full of self-doubt. Dano’s Wilson is the one that descends into the madness. Cusack’s Wilson is the one who hasn’t quite escaped the madness, but he’s getting there.
Brian Wilson was once asked about the stories told in Love & Mercy and he gave a one-word answer – “accurate.” Having read most of what there is to read about Brian Wilson’s story, I can’t argue with his assessment. The touchstones are there – the nervous breakdown on the airplane, the cause of Brian’s deafness in his right ear [supposedly], the piano in the sandbox, the tent in the living room, the painstaking recording process during the Pet Sounds sessions, the craziness that was the SMiLE sessions [especially the Mrs O’Leary’s Cow session]. There was Brian’s paranoia [thinking his house was bugged by both Phil Spector and his father]. There’s the drive to create an entire album that was greater than The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The arguments with Mike Love over lyrics and the direction of the band are front and center.

We see a Brian Wilson who is most comfortable in a recording studio. He revels in the tedium of recording take after take of little bits of music to make sure it’s perfect. Mike Love doesn’t like it. He’s the only one of the other Beach Boys to argue with Brian about the direction of the band. He complains there aren’t any hits on Pet Sounds, and even the happy songs are sad. He also complains none of the other Beach Boys actually played on Pet Sounds [Ed. Note – except for the odd guitar part or percussion bit, that criticism is true]. Brian says there’s so much stuff that he needs to get out, but Mike criticizes that as “selfish” and having let the band down. There’s a part where Brian is in his swimming pool while Mike and the other Beach Boys argue about direction. As Brian’s paranoia grows, we notice that’s he’s literally in the deep end of the pool, as well as metaphorically. The studio musicians [“The Wrecking Crew”] like working for Brian. Drummer Hal Blaine tells Brian that of all the musicians they’ve worked with, he’s the best, but that’s small consolation for Brian.

A telling point in the “young” Brian Wilson’s story comes in either late 1966 or early 1967. He’s having dinner with his wife and friends. After the ‘commercial flop’ that was Pet Sounds, the song Good Vibrations was a #1 single. His father Murry had been telling him that he had passed his peak, that he was a “has been.” But Brian made Good Vibrations his way [the fragmented same way he made Pet Sounds], and it was a chart topper during the era of The Beatles. In what should have been a moment of triumph [an “I told you so” moment, if you will], he had a panic attack during dinner. All he could hear was the constant chatter of his dinner guests, and the clinking of silverware on plates that grew louder and louder until he could take it no longer. Afterwards, he has a meeting with the rest of the band in his swimming pool. As if to make the point absolutely clear, Brian is in the deep end [as in “going off the deep end…”].

The first time we see the 1980s Brian Wilson is in a Cadillac dealership. A shoeless Brian [he didn't want to get sand in the car] is sitting in a car on the showroom floor when he’s approached by Melinda Ledbetter [Elizabeth Banks]. She gets in the car and Brian starts talking in non sequiturs [including his jogging habits a little bit about his brother having recently died]. Soon Brian is joined by Dr. Eugene Landy and two minions. Then Landy lets slip to Elizabeth that she was talking to Brian Wilson. She knew the name – many in Southern California knew the name. Instead of giving her his phone number he handed her a piece of paper with three words on it: Lonely, Scared, Frightened. She asked him if he really stayed in bed for two years, and he said “no, it was more like three.” She was intrigued by his honesty. As she gets to know Brian, she finds that Brian is practically a prisoner in his own home. She also finds that Landy prescribes copious amounts of psychotropic drugs [the wrong ones, it turns out] in order to keep Brian under his control.

There are two villains in the movie – Brian’s father Murry and Dr. Eugene Landy. Both figures have “asshole” written all over them. A strange bit of the story involves the dynamic between Brian and Murry. Murry was a bit of a domineering control freak. Brian fired Murray as their manager [which Murry never hesitates to re-hash time and again], but yet he still wanted his father’s approval when he played his new songs to Murry. Brian asked Murry his opinion of a new song called God Only Knows. Murry didn’t like it. He thought it was “wishy washy.” During a recording session, Murry brought an acetate of a new group he was producing called the Sunrays. He thought they were the next big thing, and the Beach Boys should be more like them because they’re “has-beens.” The final betrayal by Murray when he sold the Beach Boys catalog from under them comes at the same time that SMiLE collapsed [Ed. Note – the sale actually happened in 1969; SMiLE collapsed in May 1967].

Landy is played by Paul Giamatti. Landy is Brian’s psychiatrist, nutritionist, legal guardian and overall gatekeeper/warden. He also has an explosive temper. He has total control over all of Brian’s affairs. The operative word here is control. After Brian and Melinda start dating, he asks Melinda to visit him in his office. Here he tells Melinda what she’s “getting into” – that Brian is a paranoid schizophrenic who needs to be controlled, and that as Brian’s guardian he is the control. He even asks Melinda to telephone him with all the details after every meeting she has with Brian. In his desire for absolute control over all aspects of Brian’s life, he has his ever-present minions go out on double-dates with Brian and Melinda. In one scene, Brian complains about being hungry. Landy tells him he only thinks he’s hungry and he’ll have to wait his turn to be served lunch. Melinda is willing to share, but Landy will have none of it. When Brian grabs Melinda’s hamburger and stuffs half of it in his face, Landy starts screaming at him. When he sensed that Brian and Melinda were getting too close, Landy told Melinda that it’s over between her and Brian. Brian confessed to Melinda that he’s scared of Landy - “He is my legal guardian, he can do things to me.” Cusack is very good at going from being casual about his past to being absolutely terrified of Landy.

Melinda knows that Landy is up to no good, but she needed proof. The housekeeper provided the proof with a copy of a power of attorney, one that Landy has doctored to suit his own ends. Once she had the proof, Melinda made a call to Carl Wilson. The next scene we see is one where Landy goes to the auto dealership where Melinda works. A process server saw Landy there and gave him the “you’ve been served” spiel. Landy exploded in a rage and starts yelling every expletive in the book at the closed door of her office. The more he screams, the more she knows she has won. Then suddenly she opened the door and she just looked at Landy as if to say “go ahead – say that to my face.” Landy went silent and disappeared.

Sometime after Landy disappeared from the scene, we see Brian walking down a street in Beverly Hills. He crosses the street and nearly gets run over by…Melinda! Brian told her Landy was gone and he wanted to go on a drive with her. The last scene shows Brian and Melinda pulled over on some dead-end street. At the end of the dead-end is a freeway where Brian’s childhood home used to be. He wanted Melinda to see it, but he had no idea it was gone. But no matter, Brian is away from the evil Dr. Landy and tells Melinda he wants to be with her. Cue the song Wouldn’t It Be Nice

The film ends with the real Brian Wilson singing Love & Mercy. He’s married to Melinda, and Eugene Landy is long gone. I love happy endings…