“Love and Mercy”– Mostly “Good Vibrations”

 

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)

If you remember the 1960’s classic album “Pet Sounds” by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love and Mercy”.

In an unusual music biopic of Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” structures his life through two highly acclaimed actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, playing Brian the younger and middle-aged Brian respectively. In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and adult life results in the destructive behavior of his middle-age. Based on Brian Wilson’s biography, “Love and Mercy’ tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which seemed never to heal.

But tragic childhood can have moments of redemption and hope. “Love and Mercy” has both, with the introduction of Melinda Ledbetter (played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks). Love and Mercy

Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing. …How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

Melinda Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”

Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”

Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.”

And that dialog foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love and Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash”.

And, the music! Absolutely essential to evoking the time period as well as the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” also provides just enough of a hint of why Wilson is considered one of the music greats. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him. Understanding his revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his music recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals)  is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however,  was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.

“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws too, especially if the viewer has some awareness of the trials and tribulations of Brian’s life. In portraying the two lives of Brian Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), “Love and Mercy” sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a much bigger story that is left without important detail. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Brian Wilson’s family, who were sometimes jealous and manipulative themselves, intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation to help? Who finally brought the legal challenge to Landy’s charlatan therapy and guardianship of Brian? His father delivers several abusive encounters but we are left wanting more background. What about his mother?

Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to be a classic not only for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. Just as “Good Vibrations” was Brian Wilson’s biggest hit,  “Love and Mercy” is a paean to the former glory of the once incomparable Brian Wilson.

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!