Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Love and Mercy (River Road Entertainment, Battle Mountain Films, Lionsgate, 2014, released 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Friday night I screened Charles Love & Mercy, a biopic of Brian Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys, whose bizarre career trajectory from brilliant young genius to drug-induced psychotic to puppet of his controversial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy to his ultimate separation, full recovery and late-in-life comeback as a sort of elder statesman of music would seem to be made for the big screen. I’m familiar with the story from a lot of sources, including the reports that came out about it when it was still going on as well as Steven Gaines’ 1980’s biography of the Beach Boys, Heroes and Villains (which also dealt with Brian’s brother Dennis Wilson and his relationship with Charles Manson, who was hoping Dennis would get him a record contract so he could make the album that he thought would spark an apocalyptic race war — when he didn’t get signed he targeted the man whom he’d thought would sign him — Terry Melcher of Columbia Records, Doris Day’s son — by ordering the killings of Sharon Tate and four other people who were staying at the home Melcher had formerly occupied, and which Manson thought Melcher owned) and Brian Wilson’s own autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, published in 1992. (Wouldn’t It Be Nice credits a co-writer, Todd Gold, and the Wikipedia page on Brian Wilson says that in a 1992 lawsuit Brian said he never even read the finished book; it also claims he’s working on another ghost-written “autobiography.”) The film picks up Brian Wilson’s story when he’s in the middle of recording the backing tracks for the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds — a commercial disappointment (though not, as depicted in the movie, an outright flop; it did break three AM radio hit singles) — under the arrangement Brian worked out with his bandmates by which he would remain at home, write songs and record backing tracks while the rest of the Beach Boys toured. (Brian actually stopped touring with the Beach Boys a year and a half before Pet Sounds was recorded, but it’s not terribly surprising that screenwriters Oren Moyerman and Michael Alan Lerner — who, ironically, shares two-thirds of his name with another legendary songwriter — did this elementary bit of telescoping.)

The film accurately depicts the arguments Brian got into with the other Beach Boys — especially his cousin Mike Love — over his new material, with Mike arguing that the Beach Boys had hit on a successful formula with songs about surfing, fast cars, California sunshine and young love, and they shouldn’t leave their audience behind by changing their style. Brian counter-argued that the audience was leaving them; he’d heard the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul and realized that the future of music was in elaborate productions and sophisticated lyrics, and he was competitive enough to want to make an album that would top Rubber Soul. An awful lot of people thought Pet Sounds had topped the Beatles — and one of them was Paul McCartney, who went back into the studio determined to make an album that would top the Beach Boys’ masterwork. The Beatles next released Revolver, and Brian heard it and was determined to top it, so he hooked up with producer, songwriter and lyricist Van Dyke Parks to create the most famous stillborn album in history, Smile (whose title became such a byword for recording projects that fell flat due to their own overambitiousness that Charles Mingus’ Epitaph, a piece he premiered at New York’s Town Hall in 1962 and which was in such a state of incompletion that Mingus had copyists backstage writing the parts for part two while the band was onstage playing part one — as “Mingus’ Smile”).

When he’s stuck a “friend” offers Brian LSD, he goes on a trip and tells his then-wife Marilyn Rovell that he’s just seen God — according to Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian actually took LSD two years earlier than that, just before recording “California Girls,” and though lyrically it’s an old-fashioned Beach Boys song, the shimmer in the musical arrangement was a direct result of Brian’s LSD use — at least that’s how Brian told the story a quarter-century ago in a book whose “take” on much of Brian’s life was very different from what he thinks about it now (the closing credits of Love and Mercy credit him with cooperating with the project). The film intercuts between Brian Wilson in the late 1980’s as he meets and falls in love with ex-model turned Cadillac salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and Brian in the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s as he gets more and more obsessive about Smile, then suddenly abandons the project (according to Steven Gaines, he had another meeting with Paul McCartney, who came out to California with a tape of the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life,” and Brian’s face drained white as he realized that the Beatles had already accomplished everything he’d hoped to do with Smile; Brian’s own account in Wouldn’t It Be Nice was that he heard Paul play “She’s Leaving Home” but somehow it doesn’t seem to me that a live vocal-and-piano performance of one of the least “psychedelic” songs on Sgt. Pepper would have had the huge ego-destroying effect on Brian Wilson as hearing “A Day in the Life” in the form we know it from the recording, and the writers of Love and Mercy seem to attribute the abandonment of Smile to yet another argument between Brian and his father, Murry Wilson, with whom he had a relationship similar to Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart: the mediocre musician who realized he’d sired a genius and tried to exploit him), retreats to his bed and hardly ever leaves for two, three or four years (the accounts differ) except to get food from the refrigerator and (presumably) use the bathroom.

His weight balloons to nearly 300 pounds and Marilyn decides to act, first by putting a padlock on the refrigerator door and then calling in Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who had developed a system of treating celebrity patients by taking over their lives 24/7, surrounding them with minders and bodyguards (when the movie Brian first meets Melinda at the car dealership where she works, he points out his “bodyguard” and muses on how odd a word that is) and gives Brian the full-dress treatment. By 1976 Brian is well enough that Warner Bros., which then had the Beach Boys under contract, mounts a full-dress “Brian Is Back!” campaign, including starring the Beach Boys in an NBC-TV special and booking Brian Wilson on Saturday Night Live, in which he performs a version of “Good Vibrations” with just his voice and piano, the piano mounted in a giant sandbox. The real Brian Wilson had done this in one of his crazier inspirations — he said he would be inspired if he could feel sand under his feet as he composed — only the giant sandbox ended up being a giant litter box for Brian’s pets (he had cats, though in the movie we see only dogs). When Brian wrote Wouldn’t It Be Nice he was still under Landy’s influence — he’d flown the coop in the late 1970’s, then been arrested as a homeless derelict in San Diego and taken to a hospital, where he recalled being treated by a Black nurse who jacked him off (not that that was going to end up in the movie — they had a PG-13 rating to protect!), and Landy came back slamming into his life and put him on an even tighter regimen of control than he had before. Wouldn’t It Be Nice depicts Dr. Landy as the angel of mercy who saved Brian Wilson’s life and nursed him back to creativity — at the end of the book Brian describes the lawsuit the other Beach Boys filed against him and Dr. Landy, demanding that Brian fire Landy as a condition of being allowed to remain in the Beach Boys, and it ends with him, feeling betrayed and hurt, facing an uncertain future without Dr. Landy’s influence. I remember this vividly because Brian was scheduled to do a book signing in San Diego and I was supposed to cover the event for a small local weekly — only at the last minute Dr. Landy insisted that the event be canceled, and it was.

Love and Mercy describes Dr. Landy as so domineering he’s practically insane himself; when he decides Melinda is getting too close to Brian and it’s threatening his control, he insists she not see him again (he’d previously ordered Brian to cut off all contact with his ex-wife Marilyn and their two daughters), and the lawsuit that forced Landy out of Brian’s life is depicted not as a betrayal but a liberation. Yet, ironically, the movie is titled after — and ends with a performance of — “Love and Mercy,” the first song on the 1989 Brian Wilson solo album Dr. Landy produced, even though the one scene we see from the recording of this album shows Dr. Landy browbeating Brian in his home studio and demanding he write a song … at once, in a scene that makes a powerful but not overstated parallel between the way Dr. Landy is treating Brian and the way his father treated him. (In Wouldn’t It Be Nice Brian describes his deal with Sire Records to release this album; his contract called for Sire to release a second album if the first sold over a certain number of copies, and Brian actually recorded the second album, with the revealing title Sweet Insanity, but Sire president Seymore Stein weaseled out of his contractual obligation to release it because, while the first album had met the sales quota, it had done so just barely.) The movie’s basic stratagem for showing Brian Wilson at two different stages of his life is to use two actors to play him — John Cusack as the late-1980’s Brian and Paul Dano as the mid-1960’s Brian (I love Paul Dano as an actor but I’m having the feeling about him I also had about Ryan Gosling: when is there going to be one casting director out there who casts him as someone normal?) — though they both look believable as the real person (the physical resemblances to the real Brian are strong) and as the same person at different ages. (This was a long-unrealized project of Josef von Sternberg: to portray a character’s complete life story by using different actors to play him or her at different ages.) There’s also a third Brian, since the film occasionally flashes back to his and his brothers’ childhoods and in those the son of the director, Bill Pohlad, plays Brian.

Love and Mercy inevitably leaves out a lot of the twists and turns of the real-life story — I remember a mid-1990’s TV-movie about the Beach Boys that took a much more morbid view of the material (including Murry Wilson suffering a fatal heart attack while listening to Lawrence Welk’s recording of “Two Step Side-Step,” the one Murry Wilson song actually recorded before the Beach Boys became successful, with his record player on repeat so the song plays over and over) — but on its own terms it’s a quite moving story, well told, and with the blue of the Southern California sky (at least when it isn’t smoggy!) and sea dominating the color scheme instead of everything being shoehorned into the dank green-and-brown look that constitutes virtually all of the spectrum we get to see in most color films today. One particularly subtle scene in the Moverman-Lerner script comes when Brian’s first wife Marilyn comes out of their house to his redoubt near the swimming pool to tell him he should come in because their daughter has just smiled her first smile — and Brian, so paralyzed with trauma over the collapse of his stillborn album, stays motionless because he can’t bear even to hear the word “smile.” It’s also well acted, with both Cusack and Dano standing out — though I suspect much of the music comes from the surviving session tapes of both Pet Sounds and Smile (both of which have been issued in multi-CD boxed sets for the true Beach Boys fanatic) and I believe many of the session directions we hear come from the real Brian Wilson — Cusack in particular manages to project just enough twitchiness we get the impression the character is not “all there,” as the saying goes, without making him too floridly crazy. And Elizabeth Banks matches the men in portraying a character whose love of Brian triumphs over her fear of him (and of Dr. Landy — the final credits feature some where-are-they-now titles that make clear the filmmakers’ view of her as the savior that got Brian out from under Dr. Landy’s thumb and set him on the path to sanity and functionality as both person and musician).