Monday, June 01, 2015

Love & Mercy: Brian Wilson, His Music, and His Svengali

To celebrate the opening of his life story’s big screen treatment, Brian Wilson recorded a new rendition of the title song with a group of school children to benefit the music education nonprofit, Little Kids Rock. Happily, Wilson is now in a position to give back. It was not always so. This was not due to a lack of willingness, but more fundamental mental health issues and the unscrupulous psycho-therapist who swooped in to exploit him. Both Wilson’s struggle to re-establish control over his own life and his musical virtuosity are dramatized in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Unfortunately, reports that Wilson stayed in bed for two or three years were more or less true. He had very real (but treatable) mental health challenges, including depression and schizophrenia. Of course, that made it considerably easier for a charlatan like Dr. Eugene Landy to dominate every aspect of his existence. Utilizing a split time line, Pohlad cuts back a forth between the initially heady days of the Pet Sounds studio sessions and the tightly regimented Landy years. It is not hard to spot at least one of the root causes of Wilson’s depression. That would be his domineering and dismissive father Murry.

To its credit, L&M is not all about the Landy scandals and a pat triumph over adversity. The best scenes of the film—by far—follow Wilson recording Pet Sounds’ instrumental tracks with the Wrecking Crew session players. Frankly, it is cool to see those often uncredited veteran sideman get their due in a film besides their own wildly entertaining documentary. In a lovely little supporting performance as legendary drummer Hal Blaine, Johnny Sneed becomes a personable, drily witty Obi-Wan figure for Wilson. Clearly, Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner get the significance of everyone involved in those sessions.

In a strange way, Paul Giamatti’s Landy is much like Vladimir Chertkov, the Svengali like historical figure he played in Michael Hoffman’s Tolstoy drama, The Last Station. Having had the practice, he can portray a sinister manipulator better than anyone. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack come across like emotionally stunted man-children as younger and older Wilson, respectively, but they are duly reflecting reality. Bill Camp also takes a decidedly villainous turn as Murry Wilson, but he stops well short of eye-rolling Mommie Dearest-Ossage County territory. As the spirited girlfriend determined to rescue Wilson, Elizabeth Banks also brings notable energy to an underwritten role, making many somewhat clichéd moments admirably watchable.

Frankly, the entire film is a good deal better than the tabloid-driven TV movie it might sound like. Not everyone in the Beach Boys’ world will appreciate it, most likely including Mike Love, who as played by Jake Abel, comes across as a real hit-craving jerkweed—but that’s his business. As a film about musicians and the debilitating effects of mental illness, it is quite smart and honestly rendered. Recommended for fans of Brian Wilson, the Wrecking Crew and Cusack (in his most presentable film in years), Love & Mercy opens this Friday (6/5) in New York, at the Chelsea Bowtie and the AMC Village 7.