LOVE AND MERCY****. Good Vibrations


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THERE’S A FINE and often unclear line that divides the ephemera of pop music and pop culture – with its single-minded drive for popularity and profit – from the timelessness of art. Equally fine is the line that divides what pop culture would label as madness (autism? eccentricity? uniqueness? individuality?) and artistic genius.
“Love and Mercy” is an engaging, wonderfully well acted exploration of the boundaries of this line.

Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson, whose life is the subject of the movie, is one of those grand masters, whose music, breaking free from the straitjacket of the pop music status quo, crossed the line. The movie offers us the clear divide between the Beach Boys (“we just need to follow the formula and get another hit”) and Brain Wilson (blow up the formula. Experiment or die).

We enter into the story just as the fame of the Beach Boys is surging. But Brian wants out of touring and performing and simply wants to retreat to the safe sanctuary of the studio to experiment with sounds and lyrics, with results that perplex and anger his fellow band members

Like the issue of pop v art, the movie is constructed in two interlocked halves.

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Paul Dano (“Twelve Years a Slave”, “Prisoners”) is the young Brain Wilson: a shy, soft-spoken musical visionary. He was an introspective, battered kid, emotionally and physically abused by a stern, controlling, unappreciative father (Bill Camp; “Birdman”, “Lincoln”). This is the father who listens to Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and deems it crap.

As an adult, past his peak, past the adulation of Beach Boy fame (an equally compelling John Cusak), he’s equally abused by another father figure -a controlling menacing charlatan, Dr. Eugene Landy (a deliciously, hissably, villainously evil, and always watchable Paul Giamatti in a bad wig).

In biographical terms we might just as well be watching a bio of Michael Jackson with is own abusive father and dubious medical advice.

Director Pohlad and lead writer Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” and the Dylan bio-pic, “I’m not There”) makes it clear that Brian (pardon the pun) is listening to a different beat from that of his brothers. After the disingenuous success of the Beach Boys’ surfer sounds (brilliant harmonies, crooning about a world they never lived), the band just wants more of same (fame and fortune and bubble gum lyrics). But Brian, demonized, by the abuse, which becomes a debilitating aural cacophony, has to use his music not as a pathway to profit, but as an escape route from his head. Like any artist, he has to find a pattern in chaos, a meaning in the madness.

Pohlad brings us into the studio. This is Brain’s world: one cut off from the outside; one where he is absolutely in control and speaking a language – code really – only his studio musicians can understand. Like building blocks of sound, we follow the flow as Wilson’s rich, nuanced music takes shape. The result is a collection (“Pet Sounds”) that was an unique, intimate, musically complex departure from the status quo of simple-minded pop. It’s where, like his reference point, The Beatles, pop became art.

The critics loved it; the adoring public didn’t.

The result, despite the redemption of “Good Vibrations” (always and forever on every Boomer’s play list): three years in bed. For three years, unable to turn the noises in his head into music, Wilson retreated to his bed – a recurring visual motif in the film (the place of sleep, sex and safety)

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The older, drug-controlled Wilson that we meet in a Cadillac sales room many years later, unnervingly focused on trying to buy a car, is too ga-ga even for the liberating release of music. Here love, more than music (and maybe director Pohlad is suggesting that love and art have interchangeable values) becomes the escape route. It’s a route mapped by the woman who would become his liberator and the centre of his life. Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”, “Pitch Perfect 2”) is Melinda Ledbetter, his (present) wife. Hers is a more subtle, low-keyed performance which refuses to be upstaged by the hysteria of Cusak’s mind-blown Wilson. She is the uber frau: sexy, caring, brassy and protective.

And like the session musicians in his early years who ‘got’ it, who understood and appreciated the complex musicianship banging around in his head, Melinda intuits how to appreciate and channel the talent, even as she loves the man, hidden somewhere below the fog of drugs.

Love, art, drugs, escapism and madness.

Perhaps art in the end is no more, or no less than a kind of good vibrations’ Star Trek translation device. An app that enables a few gifted souls a means of making the esoteric (the world of private demons and longings) public; and as Kant might suggest, a viewing portal for us mere mortals, into the illuminating intimacy of another mind.

The movie ends, as the credits roll, charmingly on a video of the real Brian Wilson, now a septuagenarian, still performing, happily his latest masterpiece, “Love and Mercy”. It’s lyrics seem entirely apt: “I just wasn’t made for these times”
 

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it’s a noir: The Paperboy


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“THE PAPERBOY”, LEE Daniels’ latest work (he also gave us “Precious”), tells the story of two reporters – Matthew McConaughey as a slimy Ward Jansen and David Oyelowo (“Complicit”, “Lincoln”) as a faux Englishman, Yardley Acheman – who journey down to a hot, sweaty Southern swampland in search of an award-winning story and the truth: what they believe to be the wrongful imprisonment of one Hillary Van Wetter – a deranged, drooling John Cusak. Van Wetter is supposed to have disemboweled the local sheriff and is in death row.

They enlist the aid of Charlotte Bess, a highly sexed, bleached-blonde beauty (Nicole Kidman, steaming up the screen) who –for reasons that are never explained – has taken to corresponding with Van Wetter and has fallen in love with him. She becomes the central object of lust and desire, by the incarcerated Van Wetter and the Jansen’s young brother Jack (Zac Efron as an Oedipal stud, forever strutting up and down in his underpants, all hormones all the time).

The whole story is narrated through the memory of the Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), a stoic figure who has managed to shoulder off racist abuse and simply carry on.

The search for the truth – set amidst the town’s close-lipped, prejudiced conspiracy of silence – is the movie’s central theme. Daniels introduces us to a world where the villains are as unattractive and unsympathetic as the protagonists and where, he suggests, the truth, never obvious, remains ever elusive and ambiguous.

All this in an atmosphere of sweaty (literally – as everyone sweats in the movie) lust and sex. In one, you could say climatic, scene Nicole Kidman reprises the “Basic Instinct” crotch shot as she titillates a shackled Cusak. The sex grows more and more debased as the movie heads toward its dark denouement, revealing as it goes, the grimy truths of Daniels’ characters.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that he chose Jimmy Stewart as often as he did in his movies because Stewart bought him ten minutes. By this he meant that Stewart’s persona was so well known and loved by the movie-going public that he came with huge positive affection…so as a writer, Hitchcock didn’t have to spend ten minutes creating a likeable film persona; Stewart bought him that. He could simply get on with his tale.

We saw this in “Arbitrage”, (even though this was just a passably average film) where Richard Gere is such a seductive personality that, even though we may disapprove of his character’s conniving, manipulative ways, he still manages to seduce the audience into rooting for him to ‘get away’ despite ourselves.

One of the problems with “The Paperboy” is that there is no Jimmy Stewart persona. The nature of the story demands this kind of obfuscation between truth and lies, good and evil. But Daniels so relishes showing us – exclusively – the nasty, seedy side of his characters (and we’re happy that McConaughey has finally moved away from gormless romcoms to playing seedy, which is his real métier) that he never allows us to empathize with anyone.

The result is a ‘caring deficit’. Basically, as an audience, we don’t give a shit about any of the people we’re spending this ninety minutes with; so that the emotional drama of the tale becomes seriously compromised.

Indeed, because he’s so intent on making his point about the hazy ground where truth and lies merge, the narrative truth of the story falls off the tracks. For as the story unfolds, there are multiple revelations and twists that take place. These make good intellectual/thematic sense – but they lack dramatic relevance. From a story-telling perspective, they become irritations and irrelevances; they contribute little to the plot.

Net, net, “The Paperboy” is a reasonably well-acted, seriously flawed, thematically overburdened movie.

It’s one, to be genre appropriate, I say “noir” to