Love and Mercy, That's What We Need Tonight...

Love & Mercy (2014)
Dir.: Bill Pohlad
TC4P Rating: 8/9


"I was lying in my room
a
nd the news came on TV

A lotta people out there hurtin'
and it really scares me
Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight
Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight"
- Brian Wilson, Love and Mercy

The television news has been filled for the past two days with the details of the massacre in San Bernardino, California. Terrorism or random violence? No one knows at this point, speculation is rampant, and you can just sense both sides of the gun debate ramping up their defenses for the next good while.

We live about 25 miles away from where the massacre took place. Just a quick drive and we could be there. I have only been to San Bernardino a couple of times, and I doubt that I have ever even seen the building where the killing took place. But I can feel the very nearness of the horrors that we are taking in complacently on our televisions and digital devices. Watching what happens in New York, Paris, or London, it all seems so far away. Even if your heart goes out to the victims and you are disgusted with the actions of the attackers, you are still able to say, "That is not here. That is half a world away. That sort of stuff doesn't happen here." And then it happens here. And then you realize, it can happen anywhere.

It seems a bit unfair to put all of this burden on the shoulders of a biographical film about the creation of some of the greatest pop music ever written and the subsequent healing and resurgence of its creator, but I can't help it. 

On Wednesday morning, not less than fifteen minutes after I finished watching Love & Mercy and found myself swept in the most sublime reverie after the film's conclusion, that mood was shattered -- quaked, really -- by the news from San Bernardino. Connecting the two in my mind was pure happenstance, but I have done it all the same. The simple lyrics I posted above -- from Wilson's 1988 song that give the film its title -- were still in my mind as I hummed along to the melody long after I had pulled the disc out of the player. Switching the mode to return to broadcast television and seeing what was taking place live in my general vicinity... well, if it doesn't bother you that something like this has happened, then you probably don't have a heart.

Except, that is sometimes exactly how I feel much of the time. I often find difficulty reacting in a warm way during moments like this. While I do have a moral sense (despite what some of my friends might think), I am not necessarily composed of the social cues that one requires when dealing with other human beings in moments of crisis or disaster. If you are not someone that is already a friend or family member of mine, I can be cold and withholding in empathy, or at least sympathy. I feel somewhat out of body as the news is reeled off, as if I were floating above everything and none of it affects me at all.

My reticence to show warmth extends to the knee-jerk reactions that seem to comfort the rest of the world on social media and in human circles. I think the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is a wholly meaningless expression that has about as much import as a total stranger answering "Fine" after you have asked "How's it goin'?" before you pass by them and never seem them again. And, of course, I have long been known as someone who does not believe in the term "too soon" in regards to tragedy. Were I famous and stupidly tweeted some of the dopey jokes I have thrown unthinkingly at friends in the past following random deaths and other tragedies, I would get in as much trouble as Gilbert Gottfried did. Good thing I don't give voice to a duck.

My warm fuzzies are seriously misplaced, and they tend to only come out when I am involved with popular art. Not that overly friendly guy Art down the street (he is kind of creepy), but with manifestations of human artistic talent. Books, comics, TV shows... but especially music and movies. I get misty not just holding your hand, but when I see a well-turned scene in a film, or when someone pulls off a good practical effect instead of resorting to CGI. I get all choked up not in moments of obvious, forced sadness in something, where everyone is meant to have a good cry, but instead at odd moments when I sense that the maker or makers of something (and it can be pure commercial product with no pretensions at all) have melded all the various pieces together perfectly and delivered on their objective. Tears may well up and my throat will catch over silliness that most others fail to perceive.

But music is the place where I get the most ridiculously emotional. It pains me when people don't love a song or an album as much as I do, to the point where I want to throw the nearest whatever at them. I get overwrought just listening to a simple but perfect pop song, and I take all lyrics by my favorite bands, no matter how juvenile or unfathomable, as the gospel. (It is very important to get each word exactly right... yes, very OCD of me.)

And if there is a surefire way to make this supposedly adult male get all weepy or if you'd like to administer a knockout drug that will make me starry-eyed and wistful for about three hours at a go, all you need to do is play the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds around me. There is no album of any genre of music that I find as beautiful, hopeful, but downright melancholic as Brian Wilson's inarguable masterpiece from 1966.

Growing up, I knew the basic Beach Boys song list; they were everywhere in the '70s, even if they were past their true heyday. I did not know very much about them except that three of them were brothers, my immediate favorite was drummer Dennis, and that the whiny guy who sang some of the lead vocals wasn't as good a singer as the others. But we did not own any of their records when I was a kid, so I only heard them sporadically on the radio. But I liked what I heard.

My real fascination with Brian Wilson sprang to the fore with his appearance in 1976 on Saturday Night Live, when he appeared as a musical guest not long after falling under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychoanalyst who would largely control Wilson's life and finances off and on for over a decade. (Landy, in fact, forced Wilson to perform on the show as part of his therapy.) I barely remember him performing in a lackluster and nervous fashion; what stuck in my mind to this day was the sketch filmed at his home where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, dressed as policemen, force Wilson to get out of the bed and finally learn to surf (under the "Catch a Wave Act"). The sketch is uncomfortable and strange -- and the overweight and confused Wilson does not look happy rolling around out in the water -- and the situation immediately made me wonder was wrong with Wilson.

It colored my opinion of him throughout the next couple of decades even as I reached adulthood and tackled Wilson's entire oeuvre, falling deeply in love with his songwriting and production artistry. My next televised run-in with Brian was in an HBO special that was filmed live in Washington, D.C. on the Fourth of July in 1980. I watched the special several dozen times over the next few years (I recorded it onto tape when the regular HBO airing were just not enough), and came to appreciate the full group as a live band (even if they were never really known for their musicianship apart from their vocals and Brian). But Brian was always so odd in it. He still seems distant and not really a part of the proceedings, and when he sings "I wanna go home" on Sloop John B, he seems like he really means it. (I had heard rumors over the years that his piano was not actually miked during this show and many others during that tour, but have never seen anything to back this up.) Of course, all of this only served to make me even more interested in what was going on in his mind. Is this the guy who wrote all of those melodies? The near genius who masterminded Pet Sounds?

Love & Mercy, subtitled The Life, Love and Genius of Brian Wilson does not take a conventional approach to musical biography, showing us the artist as a young child and then progressing through his career until he reaches either a significant career highlight or an untimely death or a dramatic comeback in his later years. Instead, it concentrates on two distinct periods of Brian's life: the time building up to and just after the creation of the Pet Sounds LP and into the Smile sessions where he would famously begin his downward spiral into supposed madness, and the later years of his abuse at the hands of Dr. Landy when his eventual wife of the past 24 years, Melinda Ledbetter, enters his life. The film cuts between these two periods in unexpected ways, and we are never allowed to sink comfortably into the film as a result. If anything, it is almost as if we are there inside of Brian's brain as these events are recalled, even though the film doesn't actually imply that is what we are doing. Director Bill Pohlad has too deft a hand to allow us that easy route into the film.

Part of his unconventional route of Love & Mercy is to have Wilson portrayed in each period by a distinctly different actor. I suppose a similar case could be made for Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, where Bob Dylan was portrayed by six actors, each one reflecting a different side of Dylan's personality, but that was less biographical than fantasia (excellent as it was). The younger, '60s genius with the mind bursting with endless musical exploration and eventual mental breakdown is played by Paul Dano, an actor of whom I have made many disparaging remarks in the past. (I still think he was out of his element in There Will Be Blood.) But I have liked him in lighter fare such as Little Miss Sunshine, though nothing prepared me for how fully he would embody Brian Wilson, both in looks and personality, in this film. There is not a false note in his performance, and I will be disappointed should he not register at least an Oscar nomination from this. He is a wonder here.

And then there is the role of the late '80s Brian Wilson, fulfilled with equal interest by one of the most criminally underused and underrated actors of the past three decades, John Cusack. Yeah, I know there are a lot of people who still want him to be that young smart-ass from all of those '80s comedies, but Cusack has chops, and we have seen them from time to time over the years. But he rarely gets roles like this, and he knows it (but doesn't make us aware he knows it). He digs in deep in the sand outside of Wilson's beach home. His Wilson is not the fast-talking sharpie we tend to equate with a Cusack role. He is lost and trapped and nervous. He longs for... hell, love and mercy, neither of which he is getting at the hands of Landy, played with predictable desperation mixed with cunning by Paul Giamatti (who seems to be the go-to guy for these sort of roles). Cusack may not register as someone who looks particularly like Wilson, unlike Dano (though Pohlad says he got the idea of casting Cusack after seeing pictures of the '80s Wilson). However, once you see how Cusack inhabits the soul of Brian Wilson, such considerations go to the wayside.

A prime component of selling this film to the viewer is the excellent soundtrack work of Atticus Ross, who has combined snippets of studio conversations, studio session tracks, outtakes, foley effects, and his own scoring to create a musical collage that carries the viewer from scene to scene (there is a bit of a Lynchian feel to the music, though never in a lush way as when he worked with Badalamenti). Never fully reliant on simply playing Beach Boys hit after Beach Boys hit in a traditional biopic, Ross' score instead allows Wilson himself get under our skin, sometimes pleasingly, sometimes to where we feel as traumatized as the man himself. Another pleasing element is the use of Dano's own singing in certain key musical scenes and mixing it in with Wilson's at times to create a fluid effect that allows the actor his instrument but also keeps Brian's voice in our minds.

The film rides waves of abuse, that experienced by Wilson at the hands of his domineering father and one-time manager, Murry (cruelly stamped by Bill Camp), and then the paranoid, overly drugged existence of his years under Landy and his goonish "bodyguards". But the film is grounded in its title. Love and mercy will come; all you have to know is Wilson's current flourishing state of creativity and continuing marriage to Ledbetter to see he has done well for himself. Smile has finally been completed, and while it may not be precisely what he would have done had he actually completed it as his younger self in the late '60s, it is informed by his experiences through the rest of his life, and it is a wonderful tribute to his talents and the resiliency of his music.

And near the end of the Landy era, on an album on which Landy himself took co-production and co-songwriting credits (since rescinded), Wilson wrote the song Love and Mercy. The lyrics are nearly childlike, but speak to Wilson's outlook on the world at large from his isolation:

"I was sittin' in a crummy movie
w
ith my hands on my chin
All the violence that occurs
s
eems like we never win
Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight
So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight"

As I finish this, it has been almost 48 hours since the first reports of gunfire in San Bernardino. Everyone is yelling back and forth about gun control; the same old arguments both pro and con by the same old elements. No one can agree on anything except that everyone is afraid (except maybe the ones that have too many guns and ammo). There is still a debate about whether this constitutes an act of terrorism, though increasingly, the signs are pointing to "yes". And if so, it has touched down basically in my backyard. 

How long am I going to be able to lose myself in music? How long am I going to be able to try and ignore most of the world and deny that I am a part of the human race? This species that should only seek for beauty and peace and scientific truth but instead nearly always turns to war and rape and murder and torture and destruction? How long can I hold out?

As long as I fucking can... [Cues up Pet Sounds once again...]


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