American cinema has tackled rock & roll in numerous ways over the years. Just look at the deluge of biopics that have been made in the last few decades: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Doors, Ike & Tina and of course this summer’s the highly anticipated N.W.A biopic have all been given the hollywood treatment. To say that not even half of these movies were artistically successful portrayals of these legends is a downright disappointing. If you made a list of the best rock & roll movies, nearly half of it would be non-fiction films. This is why it is a cause for celebration to have a Brian Wilson biopic coming out on June 5th that is actually pretty tremendous.
I’m an avid Beach Boys fan. “Pet Sounds” is like my bible. Every song in that album could have only been created by a brilliant mind with ears that could hear sounds no other ear could. Brian Wilson is that man – an artist so consumed by his creativity and genius that it ended up haunting him forever. Not many artists were victims of their own creative brilliance, but Brian Wilson was. Consumed by the urgency to one up The Beatles and their revolutionary record “Rubber Soul”, Wilson set out to make something better, and he did, but it came with a cost. The Beatles countered back with “Revolver”. Wilson tried to counter with the brilliant and, as of then unreleased, SMILE, but that was the downfall.
In Bill Pohlad’s “Love and Mercy” two brilliant actors get to play Wilson in two different eras. Paul Dano is the “Pet Sounds”-era artist who had no idea what kind of masterpiece he was about to create. John Cusack is the aftermath, almost two decades later, highly medicated, taken advantage of by his manager and haunted by the sounds and voices that created “Pet Sounds”. Both actors are great and veteran film producer Pohlad (“The Tree of Life”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Into the Wild”) directs his first movie since 1990’s underseen “Old Explorers”. It’s an immeasurable feat for him as he tries the unthinkable – getting us inside Brian Wilson’s head.
The film has its bumps along the road, but the sheer ecstasy of watching Wilson record “Pet Sounds” in a studio with his bandmates is contagious and priceless. Yes, this is fiction, but Dano embodies Wilson so much in his performance that you actually do forget you are watching a movie. It really isn’t much of a surprise to know the 30 year-old actor of “Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood” and “12 Years a Slave” gives us another memorable performance. His depiction of Wilson is that of a wide-eyed kid being slowly stripped of his innocence by his obsessive creativity.
Pohlad wisely shifts the two time periods back and forth, and as good as Cusack is as the drugged up, lethargic Wilson of the 80’s – and boy is he fantastic in this movie – it’s Dano you want to see the most. His absence is clearly felt whenever not on screen, as is the freewheelin’ nature of the recording sessions. Cusack is as great as he’s always been in his career, never hitting a false note, showing an almost emotionless, tranquilized expression every frame, but keeping the pain Wilson felt in the eyes. It’s not easy playing a man who suffered through major depressions, schizophrenia and countless drug relapses.
This was clearly a labor of love for Pohlad and I do expect the reviews to be glowing for his wonderful film. I also fear that Dano’s memorable performance might be forgotten come awards time given the smale-scale, intimate nature of the film. It’s a delicate, sweet, but harrowing love letter to the art of creating. Who better as a subject than Brian Wilson? Dano is slowly becoming one of the great actors of his generation, all his work being done under the radar and without much buzz tied to his name. Throughout his career he’s refused to go down the hollywood route and has instead opted for a more adventurous set of roles. Will this movie be his big breakthrough? Quite possibly.
Watching Pohland try to recreate an iconic moment in music history got me thinking about some of the great Rock and Roll movies, both fiction and non-fiction. The translation from record player to screen has not always been smooth, and as much as I admired “Walk The Line” or “Ray”, I always felt like the narratives of those films didn’t capture the essence and boldness of the music created by the artists they depicted on celluloid. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed “Love and Mercy” because it never ran on conventional ground and didn’t go down the predictable biopic route, instead opting to provoke the viewer with a much bolder narrative, much akin to last year’s underrated James Brown biopic “Get On Up”.
What constitutes a great rock movie? There haven’t been a ton of great ones over the years. As I mentioned earlier in this write-up, the translation from record player to screen hasn’t always been smooth. Too many filmmakers have been caught delving into a formulaic narrative in telling their stories, choosing to have the music do the talking and forgetting about the filmmaking itself. Brainstorming through hundreds of titles I came up with five that truly broke the mold and rewrote the rules of the game. These are the iconic moments where film and music blended together and became one on screen. It is no surprise that most of the filmmakers on this list already had an incredible knowledge of music history before even making their movies (Demme, Scorsese, Crowe) and their movies really just speak for themselves. As Nigel from “This Is Spinal Tap” famously said “these go to eleven”.