Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Love And Mercy Movie Review (Part 2)

Yesterday we ran a few reviews of the new Brian Wilson film "Love And Mercy", reportedly released with the full cooperation of both Brian and Melinda Wilson, as submitted by a few of our readers.  (Reviews continue to come in ... so please feel free to submit yours for future publication.)

Today, we'll tell you what WE thought after seeing this highly anticipated film.  (I'm told we're one of the few negative reviews out there ... but we've ALWAYS called 'em as we see 'em ... and we're not about to stop doing that now, just because we love this music but felt short-changed at the theater this past weekend.)

FORGOTTEN HITS REVIEW:  Love And Mercy (the brand new Brian Wilson biopic) 
Review in a Word:  DISAPPOINTING  

Once again, we have spent the last several months in anxious anticipation of the brand new Brian Wilson biopic, "Love And Mercy".  As soon as the official release date was announced, we jumped on it in Forgotten Hits to let folks know that this film was finally going to see the light of day with a wide Stateside release.  

And, once again, we were terribly disappointed by the results.  

I suppose I should have known going in that the main focus of the film was going to be concentrated on the relationship between latter day "unstable" Brian and his Svengali therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy ... but I also assumed that some clarity would be established along the way between not only the necessity of this relationship but also all of the details and event leading up to its inevitable implementation.  Let's face it ... not everybody out there is privy to the "warts and all" details that make up The History Of The Beach Boys ... and all their trials, tribulations and shortcomings.  Without some essential background foundation being laid, how else could the film reach the mass appeal necessary to capture the largest possible audience?  

My immediate reaction was that everyone from the most casual Beach Boys fan to those who closely followed their career and bought all the records was going to feel in some way cheated because of the way the film glossed over all of those early, hit-making years to focus instead on "train wreck Brian", rather than the musical genius he really was, forging his way to the top during the most creative, innovative and competitive era of music we've ever seen.  Quite honestly, I felt cheated in this regard, too.  

Instead of grasping the complete story, (whether through poor editing or just grossly misplaced assumptions by the folks putting this whole thing together) anyone not up to speed with every detail and nuance of Brian's various breakdowns and idiosyncrasies will be totally lost and find themselves scratching their collective heads, feeling somewhat left behind with that which made the final cut.  (I realize there's only so much story you can tell in two hours ... but SOMETHING could have been done to "set up" certain events and key characters.)  I also wasn't particularly fond of the way the movie kept cutting back between '60's Brian and '70's Brian rather than simply letting the story unfold through its own sequence of events.

That being said, I also felt that any number of pivotal life events were not satisfactorily explored or explained.

EXAMPLES: The Wrecking Crew was VITAL to Brian Wilson's recording process once he quit the road to concentrate on the recording duties of his band's next releases ... and they are featured several times in studio sequences (primarily surrounding the "Pet Sounds" sessions.)  If you know anything at all about these folks (and, until recently, few did) you can easily pick out bassist Carol Kaye (as she was typically the only female to be regularly involved in these sessions.)  A couple of others, like Hal and Al are referred to by first name in the film ... but unless you sit through the entire listing of end credits (or aren't privy to the details that made up these sessions), the casual viewer would have absolutely NO idea that these guys were Hal Blaine and Al DeLory, two more key players in creating The Beach Boys' sound.  The band's reaction to Brian making these records without them while they were out on the road performing live shows is also never fully explored.

Likewise, despite a poolside confrontation between Mike Love and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, responsible for some of Brian's most "out there" compositions, he is NEVER referred to by name in the film, again assuming (I guess) that even the most casual viewer will be able to pick him out of a line-up on legacy alone ... his name isn't mentioned once until the closing credits when the actor portraying him is listed as Van Dyke Parks.  Meanwhile, lyricist Tony Asher (a far less colorful character) IS referred to by name in conjunction with his composition "God Only Knows".  (Asher worked with Brian extensively on the "Pet Sounds" album, also contributing lyrics to "Caroline, No", "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and several others.  In fact, Tony wrote the original lyrics ... not used ... for "Good Vibrations".)  Despite all of this, it is Van Dyke Park who looms larger in Beach Boys folklore ... yet he isn't identified or recognized in any fashion during the film at all.  Go figure.  

HUGE chapters and events in Brian's life are glossed over in a single sentence in a single scene ... such as his father Murry selling "Sea Of Tunes", the publishing company they cofounded, which held the rights to all of Brian's compositions, for $750,000 ... a MAJOR example of 
A) the lack of Murry's managing skills running the band ... and knowing and understanding what was best for them ... and 
B) The elimination of tens of millions of dollars in future royalties, not to mention the fact that, in his altered state of mind, Brian's songs were more accurately his "children" than the two daughters (Carnie and Wendy, never shown or mentioned by name) he had with his first wife Marilyn Rovell.  Murry simply believed that these tunes had already outlived their value and that they should "cash out" while they still had a chance, even mentioning that he didn't get "quite as much as I was hoping for".

Most of the conflict and abuse (both physical and mental) between father and son are only alluded to in the film ... but never fully explored. In reality, it was this dynamic that drove Brian to perfect his craft, never quite good enough in his father's eyes, no matter what heights he reached with the band. 

The Beach Boys' early career and their skyrocketing trip to the top of the charts is all but glossed over ... according to this film, their career began and ended with "Pet Sounds".  How much more effective all of this would have been had they concentrated on how "Pet Sounds" broke the band from the mold of all prior Beach Boys music that had so successfully come before it as Brian accepted the challenge put forth by The Beatles with their innovative album approaches on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" to effectively reinvent their sound and raise the bar competition-wise as a new, even greater challenge back to The Fab Four.  In fact, The Beatles (and Paul McCartney in particular) were SO knocked out by Brian's efforts on "Pet Sounds" that they went back and created "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", considered by many to be the greatest album ever made.  (This, too, is reduced to one sentence when someone mentions that McCartney called "God Only Knows" the most beautiful song ever written.)  In an opposite approach, the film attempts to be "hip" and "inside" by mentioning that The Beatles sang "tit - tit - tit - tit" in the background of "Girl" on "Rubber Soul", stealing the sound of The Beach Boys' harmonies in the process ... as if they're revealing some deep dark secret "little known factoid" that, in reality, has since been known by EVERYBODY on the planet for the past 45 years. Instead of coming off as "revealing" or insightful, it comes off as a "cutesy" tidbit ... almost as if the writers and producers did JUST enough research to get by in an attempt to look like they knew what they were talking about regarding the film's subject matter.  (They probably should have spent a little more time fact-checking, too, as some sequences of events come off out of order when compared to the actual unfolding of these events at the time.)  The creative competition between The Beatles and The Beach Boys was intense ... and it drove BOTH of these artists to new and greater heights than either would have likely achieved on their own, were it not for trying to better the other.  This point, too, should have been driven home in the film.  Much like Brian living with the "genius" label stuck on him by music critics, it greatly impacted his growth as an artist ... both for better and for worse long term.

"SMiLE" is hinted at, at best, thanks to the infamous "fire hat" scene in the recording studio.  The chaos and mental anguish that surrounded these sessions is never explored.  Instead, the end credits explain that Brian FINALLY realized his vision of "SMiLE" in 2004 when he released the newly re-recorded, re-imagined CD recorded with his new backing band, disregarding completely the fact that it was the failure of this project that ultimately drove Brian back into his room (and over the edge mentally) way back when. None of this is ever even discussed. 

Much has been said about Paul Dano's performance as young Brian Wilson ... and he DOES seem to capture many of the idiosyncrasies of The Beach Boys' leader's early career.  In fact, I will give the film special props for accurately capturing the look of this era in all things Beach Boys style related.  (However, once again, key chapters like Brian's breakdown and subsequent bout with depression, massive weight gain, mental illness and a refusal to even get up out of bed for a couple of years are, at best, hinted at, but never fully explored.)  To this degree, Dr. Landy was a VERY valuable asset in turning Brian around, both mentally and physically.  However despite being paid an exorbitant amount of money for his services, he still wanted more, even adding his own name to Brian's songwriting credits in an effort to collect royalties!  The logic used was that Brian wouldn't have been able to write those songs, were it not for the loving mental health care provided by one Dr. Eugene Landy.  (Actually, he may be right about that ... even if his "means to an end" were, at best, a bit unorthodox and abusive!!!)  Landy is portrayed on film as WAY over the top, most likely requiring a therapist of his own! 

Melinda, Brian's second (and current wife) is played to the hilt by Elizabeth Banks, who looks absolutely stunning in every single scene.  I have NEVER seen such an elaborate wardrobe used throughout a two hour film ... she must have sold one hell of a lot of cars back in the day to be able to dress that extravagantly!!!   However I never saw or felt anything on film that made their connection believable ... although I could probably say the same thing about their real life situation!  Thankfully, for whatever reason, she saw something in Brian that sparked a need to help him through this difficult time ... and she ultimately saved him, freeing him to appreciate and enjoy life again ... and start making meaningful music again as well.  

Usually with a film like this (whether it be a musical documentary spotlighting a given group or artist like Nilsson or The Cowsills) or a biopic like the recent treatments given to Johnny Cash, James Brown and Ray Charles), there is enough good, solid music throughout to make the film watchable again and again, even just as "background noise" since you know you're always going to hear something good again musically every ten minutes or so. 

I feel that this film comes up short in THIS area, too.  Most of the songs used are very abbreviated and, too often, just the musical backing tracks from the studio or a "working edition" sung by Dano.  Cusak, for his part, doesn't warble at all.  (When it was first announced, the casting of John Cusak as "older" Brian Wilson rubbed many fans the wrong way.  Most felt that Cusak was too established as "John Cusak" to be taken seriously portraying Brian Wilson.  I will admit to going into the film with a similar prejudice ... but all in all, his performance didn't really bother me.  I viewed him as a good actor playing a part ... I just never found him believable as Brian Wilson and, as such, couldn't accept him as that.  Good in his role, yes ... Brian Wilson?  Not so much.) 

Two musical highlights worth noting ... a spot-on recreation of the "Sloop John B" video The Beach Boys filmed back in 1966 ... (you can catch the original clip on the "America's Band" video ... or on YouTube) ... and the film wraps up with the REAL Brian Wilson singing "Love And Mercy" with his new band during the ending credits.  

We watched another film over the weekend called "The Sapphires", the true story of four Aborigines Sisters who went over to Viet Nam to entertain the troops in the late '60's.  

The story content wasn't much ... and pretty predictable throughout ... so as a movie, I could only rate it a "4" out of 10.  However, the music was SO strong (even though it consisted of nothing but late '60's and early '70's cover versions of some well-known soul classics), that I had to rate the musical content a "7".  It's the kind of film I COULD watch again, knowing that, if nothing else, I'd hear a great song every 7-10 minutes or so.  

Sadly, I cannot say the same about "Love And Mercy". 

As a film, I give it a "2" ... with a musical content of "4".

That's not to say I'll never watch it again ... I probably will ... but compared to the Beach Boys "America's Band" documentary from 35-40 years ago ... or either of the two Made-For-TV Movies that have previously aired telling the story of The Beach Boys, this film comes up a very weak last place finisher for me.  I would be FAR more likely to watch ANY of the other above mentioned flicks ... or the recent "Brian Wilson And Friends" concert filmed at The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas ... or The Beach Boys' 50th Anniversary Concert (which is OUTSTANDING, by the way) than this new, long-awaited "Love And Mercy" film. 

If you're going to take the time to make a film about Brian Wilson, show more than just the tortured artist - tell the whole story.  Show the genius that fell victim to his inner demons and then rebounded again to proclaim his rightful place in music history. There is little sense of Brian's positive accomplishments and achievements here - only the fact that he seems to have been manipulated his entire life by his father, his band mates, his therapist and, to a degree, his wife - some for the better, some for worse.  I wish they would have concentrated on more of the times Brian stood up for what HE believed in musically rather than the times he simply went with the flow.  It would have made for a far more balanced ... and interesting film.  

This is NOT the review I was hoping to write ... but this is ALSO not the film I was hoping to see.  (kk)