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