&Director: Bill Pohlad
Cinematography: Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman
Writer: Robert Yeoman
by Jon Cvack
I had heard that this was a film that defied expectations. The preview made it look like the traditional bio-pic, with Paul Dano’s involvement bizarre, though possibly a movement into more mainstream films. The poster art didn’t help with this, showing 60s bubbly yellow letters with Dano’s face in blue stencil with the sun behind him. Knowing near nothing about the band, it captured what I imagined The Beach Boys were. Sure, they probably had some drug or alcohol problems, disagreements, but far too clean for a VH1 Behind the Music. It has all that, but also more. Much more.
The story takes place in the 80s when Brian Wilson would be considered washed up, now under the possibly abusive care of his legal guardian and other “friends”. The b-story takes place during the late 60s as The Beach Boys were at the height of their fame, competing with The Beatles, touring the nation all while Brian just wanted to stay home and write more music. While the 80s section was okay, with some decent performances between Cusack and his auto-dealer future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) - and completely stolen by the bizarre performance of his guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) - the 60s section made you want to fast forward through all of it. We watch as Brian’s LSD experimentation drives his schizophrenia through the roof as he writes the next album. We get to see the construction of nearly all their popular songs from the period, as gripping as I’ve ever seen - like up there with the opening scene of There Will Be Blood type of engaging. We witness that songs that might sound simple or easy are actually complex and rich, constructed with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that any great art possesses.
Let me stop here and say that while I enjoy The Beach Boys, I never really saw them as some magnificent writers, or their music containing all that much depth. That was until I heard "Good Vibrations" one day and heard what - to be honest - I thought was a bass guitar, but is actually a cello. We then see how Brian Wilson nearly drove the entire band and players insane by trying to get the perfect rhythm and sound. Throughout the film we watch him as he builds the music bit by bit. Rather than doing what would have been easy - cutting to live performances of all their best stuff, we get to see how this music was constructed, and gain an immense appreciation for it as a result.
I always consider how perfect music or films or books are those that are revered both by the masses and the experts that know why it’s great. This is a film that shows you the reason why The Beach Boys remain relevant and popular is because their best songs have an extensive amount of thought and craftsmanship behind them. My eyes were wide as I watched Paul Dano obsess over the tiniest element, as he went from playing away at a keyboard to building upon the idea with a full orchestra. I thought this was some of the greatest use of showing an actual character - letting his music demonstrate his true side, rather than dramatic exchanges. Dano sinks further and further into schizophrenia, abetted by LSD and alcohol, eventually letting up his complete dominance, offering to let some of the members write the lyrics. It was here that I fully grasped The Beach Boys - they were a surfer band, no different than any modern pop boy-band phenomenon, and wanted to maintain the lighter ideas behind that image, but it was built upon a foundation of pure genius. When I hear the lyrics, knowing that Wilson was probably thinking about voices in his head, acid experiences, or suicide as he wrote the music, which the band then put to clean and positive lyrics is such an amazing discovery. It makes it all feel different. It’s like understanding the intricacies of baseball and then watching a great game.
And then there was the 1980s section. John Cusack plays an older Brian Wilson, who is introduced at a car dealership, looking for a Cadillac and finds a beautiful dealer Melinda Ledbetter, who sits in the car with him while he rambles on and on, and immediately we understand that this is Brian of the Future and he’s weird and strange, possibly abused or taken advantage of by his legal guardian. It’s sad, and relative to the first scene, not that interesting, especially with where it all ends up. I kept hoping that the end result would have him back to producing another great track. He does do this, except they do it in the most uninspired way possible, of having Brian Wilson play his new track “Love and Mercy” over the rolling credits. We don’t see him write it, we don’t know the struggle. So instead we just see the end of a really ugly story that left me with more questions than it resolved. Flipped, I was hoping to see what else 60s acid head Brian Wilson ended up producing. He’s at a dinner table, hears the clinks and clangs of eating dinner, they’re very loud, and then he flips out, but what happened? Did he create more music? None of this is explored. I think it would have been a much strong story should it have continued on with the 1960s rather than trying to split it with the 1980s. I suppose a defense is that, like Wilson, the story itself was schizophrenic - engaging and vivid versus alienating and cold. I still would have rather seen what else happened to 60s Wilson and the music he wrote, or didn’t and why.
BELOW: Creating "Good Vibrations"
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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