Monday, July 13, 2015

Love & Mercy

I get the feeling that the summer of 2015 is going to have a lot of movies fall through the cracks for me, between the move and a longer-than-usual trip to Montreal. The real shame is that they won't necessarily be easily-skipped things like Terminator 5 or Self/Less (and let it be known that I'm still kind of shocked that there's enough sci-fi in theaters these days that I can skip the ones that don't look terribly appealing without guilt), but movies like Love & Mercy: Quality films that exist on the line between studio and independent fare that need time made for them.

Thankfully, I made time for this one, carving a Thursday night screening out because I knew that it would likely be long-gone from theaters by the time I got back from Montreal. It's totally worth it, and one of the films I want to strongly recommend to the folks I know who don't go to a lot of movies: It's got an impressive cast and a subject that a lot of people will find interesting. It's made for adults without being crass, including in terms of not being afraid to be a little advanced in how it presents its story. It's the sort of movie that some friends and I were lamenting the lack of during the last awards cycle, the one that manages to be both award-worthy art and popular entertainment. Or at least, would be the latter if it could get through to the mainstream audience amidst a lot of the must-see-on-the-big-screen noise.

Well, it's not gone from the Boston area yet, nor presumably most other cities, so I hope folks give it a little more chance to become a word-of-mouth hit. It's an excellent movie and deserves a good long run.

Love & Mercy

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys made some of their best songs (and one of pop music's greatest albums) by meticulously - indeed, maniacally - piecing small fractions together that aren't naturally found near each other, inventing what he couldn't pull from a group of talented musicians. Director Bill Pohlad aims to do the same with his two-track biography of Wilson, and he's not quite the sort of genius that can turn these conflicting things into the sort of finished product that feels like they way they must be. There are jarring bits. But that's a good way to approach a man with a mind that misbehaves, and the filmmakers get it to work.

The first clear images come from the late 1980s or early 1990s, where California Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) has an unusual walk-in (John Cusack), simultaneously blunt and shy, very soft-spoken but also flirtatious and impulsive in a way that has to make a woman nervous. It's not until his guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) catches up that she finds out who this customer is. She's intrigued enough for a date, where she discovers that Landy's ministrations are excessive and controlling.

In the mid-1960s, a young Wilson (Paul Dano) is already starting to show signs of what Landy would later diagnose as paranoid schizophrenia, although that isn't necessarily linked to his no longer wanting to perform live as opposed to creating new sounds in the studio. So while the rest of the band is touring Japan, he's working with session musicians to create what will become "Pet Sounds" - though that album's critical success but pop-chart disappointment will deepen an already large rift between Brian, the rest of the band, and their former manager - and since most of the latter are family, speed the deterioration of his mental health.

There are two obvious storylines there, both of which wind up having a great deal of room for Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner to expand, contract, focus, connect, and contrast, but my favorite winds up emerging from the 1960s scenes, as Wilson becomes a joyously engaged mad scientist, daring his players to try new things, pouncing on "mistakes" and asking to repeat them. Fans of rock history - or just those who saw the long-delayed documentary released last year - will recognize the Wrecking Crew studio musicians even before they are name-checked, and that's just the first sign of the intriguing detail that is bursting out from all corners. This, we see, is where Brian is most functional and engaged, and though it clearly takes a special kind of mind to do this sort of work, Pohlad makes the process itself fascinating and frequently funny - it's actually an unusually clear look at the creative process that treats it as neither mysterious nor obvious. And for as great as the "Pet Sounds" sequence is, it may actually be the creation of "Good Vibrations" that astounds the most - watching Wilson find the song inside an initially-crude bassline is the musical equivalent of a sculptor knowing there's greatness inside a block of marble and chipping the excess away.

Full review on EFC.

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