Muted vi­bra­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - David Strat­ton

Love & Mercy (M) Na­tional re­lease Eden (MA15+) Lim­ited re­lease

PLove & Mercy, op­u­lar mu­sic dom­i­nates two of the films that opened in cine­mas this week: one Amer­i­can, the other French. Di­rec­tor Bill Pohlad’s

is the story of Brian Wil­son, song­writer and for a while on­stage per­former with the Beach Boys, one of the more pop­u­lar Amer­i­can bands of the 1960s and at one time ri­vals to the Bea­tles. Wil­son is pre­sented as a deeply trou­bled char­ac­ter but you get the im­pres­sion that Pohlad and co-writ­ers Oren Mover­man and Michael Alan Lerner were to an ex­tent walk­ing on eggshells with their por­trait of him, given that he’s still alive and, in fact, at­tended the film’s US pre­miere.

Pohlad and his writ­ers have opted not to tell a straight­for­ward life story of the man some have called a mu­si­cal ge­nius. In­stead, they ap­proach high­lights of Wil­son’s life in two stages 20 years apart: in the 60s (1964-68), when he was play­ing with the band but dropped out to work on the al­bum Pet Sounds (1966), con­sid­ered by many to be up there with the Bea­tles’ Sgt. Pep­per as a rock mas­ter­piece, and in the 80s when, un­der the bale­ful in­flu­ence of psy­chi­a­trist Eu­gene Landy (Paul Gia­matti), Wil­son is kept se­dated and a vir­tual pris­oner un­til he meets and falls in love with Melinda Led­bet­ter (El­iz­a­beth Banks), the woman he mar­ries. Paul Dano plays the younger Wil­son and John Cu­sack the older one, and the main prob­lem the viewer has to over­come is that the two ac­tors don’t look in the least bit alike.

It could be ar­gued that this doesn’t mat­ter be­cause Wil­son in his 40s was a dif­fer­ent man from Wil­son in his 20s; a rea­son­able ar­gu­ment. But as Pohlad cuts back and forth be­tween the two decades, it’s some­times a dis­tract­ing de­vice. Still, the fact this isn’t a straight­for­ward biopic but at­tempts some­thing more com­plex is a plus, and for the most part Pohlad gets away with it.

“What if I lose it and never get it back?” The ques­tion is posed at the start of the film and re­flects the trou­bled soul com­mon to many artists. But the film proper be­gins in the 80s with Wil­son vis­it­ing a Cadil­lac show­room where he meets Melinda, the at­trac­tive, well-re­hearsed mem­ber of the sales team, and im­me­di­ately con­fides in her about the death of his brother. It’s the start of a last­ing re­la­tion­ship.

Back to 1964, and the boy­ish Wil­son, trav­el­ling with the other Beach Boys on a do­mes­tic

Eden, flight, is over­whelmed by a panic at­tack. As a re­sult he de­cides not to join them on a forth­com­ing Ja­panese tour, but to stay home and work on an al­bum he prom­ises will “take us fur­ther” than the English mop­tops who were then an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion af­ter the re­lease of their Rub­ber Soul al­bum. This would prove to be Pet Sounds, and it in­volves the use of mu­si­cians and in­stru­ments not nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with pop­u­lar rock. Dur­ing the cre­ative process we dis­cover Wil­son is deeply trou­bled as the re­sult of his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther, Murry (Bill Camp), who beat him when he was a child.

When Melinda en­ters his life, firmly tak­ing him un­der her wing and de­fy­ing the or­ders of his con­trol­ling shrink, there are re­minders of a rather sim­i­lar re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ge­of­frey Rush’s David Helf­gott and the woman who “saves” him (Lynn Red­grave) in Shine. That, too, is a film in which more than one ac­tor plays a real-life mu­si­cian at dif­fer­ent stages of his life.

One of the key scenes in Love & Mercy has Wil­son cre­ate that great song, God Only Knows, to be told by his un­sym­pa­thetic fa­ther that “it’s not a love song, it’s a sui­cide note”. And there’s a de­spair­ing el­e­ment to much of Wil­son’s life as he ex­per­i­ments with LSD and other drugs or writes com­po­si­tions, about which one of the Beach Boys notes: “Even the happy songs are sad.”

The de­vice of cut­ting back and forth be­tween events tak­ing place two decades apart has its draw­backs. For ex­am­ple, we never learn why Landy was able to ex­ert so much con­trol over Wil­son to the ex­tent he kept him a vir­tual pris­oner and could or­der Melinda to re­port back to him af­ter they went out to­gether; it would have been in­ter­est­ing to dis­cover more about this as­pect of Wil­son’s life.

But de­spite reser­va­tions such as these, Love & Mercy is un­doubt­edly an above-av­er­age mu­si­cal biopic, and a re­minder of just how good the Beach Boys and Brian Wil­son were.

the French mu­sic film, also spans sev­eral decades (1992-2013) as it ex­plores rel­a­tively more re­cent trends in pop­u­lar mu­sic — disco, rave, punk. This evolv­ing world is seen from the per­spec­tive of Paul (Felix de Givry) who, as a teenage stu­dent of literature, en­coun­ters “garage” when he goes to a rave lo­cated in (of all places) a sub­ma­rine moored in the Seine. En­thused, Paul and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzel­mann) be­come DJs and, un­til the craze goes into de­cline, play key roles in the mu­sic scene.

The di­rec­tor, Mia Hansen-Love, wrote the screen­play in col­lab­o­ra­tion with her brother Sven, who was him­self a DJ, and this ex­plains the au­then­tic feel­ing of the nu­mer­ous and ex­tended mu­sic se­quences. But it’s also the story of Paul’s jour­ney and the friends and lovers who in­habit his life. The friends in­clude Cyril (Ro­man Kolinka), a de­pressed graphic artist; Ar­naud (Vin­cent Ma­caigne), a film buff who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally cham­pi­ons Paul Ver­ho­even’s satire on Amer­i­can sleaze, Show­girls; and mix­ers Thomas (Vin­cent La­coste) and GuyMan (Ar­naud Azoulay), who progress to play­ing their own mu­sic as Daft Punk.

There are also women — plenty of them — start­ing with Ju­lia (the al­ways mag­nif­i­cent Greta Ger­wig), an Amer­i­can who de­cides early on that she has to go home to New York. Her suc­ces­sors in­clude Louise (Pauline Eti­enne), a fiercely in­de­pen­dent young woman with whom Paul has a volatile re­la­tion­ship.

All these char­ac­ters smoke like chim­neys — to­bacco as well as pot — and many move on to co­caine and other sub­stances. The mu­sic is heard, and danced to, un­der a con­stant cloud of thick smoke. Paul trav­els to New York (where he re-en­coun­ters the now preg­nant Ju­lia) and Chicago, but he’s one of those peo­ple who never evolves. As Ju­lia says with a cer­tain amaze­ment, “it’s crazy that you haven’t changed”, when they meet again af­ter sev­eral years, and it’s Paul in­abil­ity to change that sees him left be­hind as mu­si­cal fash­ions change and evolve.

Eden is beau­ti­fully made and fans of this sort of mu­sic will cer­tainly be am­ply re­warded with the nu­mer­ous scenes set in clubs of all kinds to the mu­sic of the era. This makes for a pretty long movie, and the prob­lem is that Paul re­ally isn’t the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter to be our guide into the world the film ex­plores. His mother (Arsi­nee Khan­jian) gets im­pa­tient with him early in the pro­ceed­ings, and we can hardly blame her.

Though the film ends on a note of op­ti­mism, it is in­ter­est­ing that, de­spite her ob­vi­ous fas­ci­na­tion with the world of mu­sic clubs, Dan­ish­born Hansen-Love shares the per­cep­tion that her pro­tag­o­nist is, ba­si­cally, a loser. So de­spite the film’s ap­par­ent au­then­tic­ity, it nonethe­less leaves the viewer with a neg­a­tive im­pres­sion of the scene.

Paul Dano as Brian Wil­son in

above; Felix de Givry and Pauline Eti­enne in

be­low

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