SMiLE, you’re on camera! The problems with ‘Love & Mercy’ (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

Duh duh-de dut duh-de duh duh-de deh duh deh

Duh duh-de dut duh-de duh duh-de deh duh deh

Duh duh-de dut duh-de duh duh-de deh duh deh

How I love my girl

Ah-oom diddy wa-da

Ah-oom siddy wa-da

Ah-oom diddy wa-da

Ah-oom siddy wa-da

Stid diddy wa-da

Bee ba siddy wa-da

Stid diddy wa-da

Bee ba siddy wa-da

Bum, bum, bah-ba bah bah bah bah…

– Excerpt from ‘Gee’, Brian Wilson, 1966

Looks kinda dumb when spelt out, doesn’t it? And so it should. If ever an album wasn’t made to be deconstructed, it was the Beach Boys’ SMiLE, which even in its bastardised form (The Smile Sessions, rec. 1965-’71, rel. 2011) feels as organic as the vegetables it rhapsodises about. It contains the greatest harmonies since Nilsson Sings Newman, and some of the most venerated pop arrangements of the last fifty years.

And yet so much of the fun comes from deconstructing the nonsense, the interrelated concepts, the recurring harmonic and melodic motifs, as well as from the realisation that Brian Wilson was avant garde through and through — we just missed it because his stuff wasn’t as aurally demanding as Zappa or Sgt. Pepper.

 
Brian Wilson in the ‘60s, and Paul Dano over half a century later. Photo credit: Getty Images

Throughout the second half of the ’60s and into the very early ’70s, the Beach Boys — Brian and his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Loveand his friend Al Jardine — sang about simple things with a simple (not simplistic) lyricism that belied the phenomenal complexity of the music itself, which was in most cases conceived by Brian with the help of his favourite instrument — the recording studio.

In its reconstruction of these moments, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy finds its great strength: the truly awesome spectacle of Brian (Paul Dano, who at points looks eerily like a young Brian) creating both music and lyrics, both of which seem to spring unfettered from his brain. But more on this later. In the spirit of the man himself, I’ll end this review on a high — but first, the manifold weaknesses of Pohlad’s film should be unpacked.

The complexity of the Boys’ music is not mirrored by Pohlad’s movie. Much has been made of the film’s structure, for which we have writer Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) to thank; it’s bipartite, with the story of ’60s Brian (Dano) intercut with the story of ’80s Brian (John Cusack). This works superficially — it’s intended as a dramatic formal expression of how far Brian fell in twenty years, with the film placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the psychotic psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who surfaced in Brian’s life in the ’70s.

In practice, however, it dichotomises ‘musical Brian’ and ‘victim Brian’ — we never see ‘80s Brian making music, which is a whitewashing of reality. He did make music in the ’80s, most of it mediocre. Presumably it never made it into the film because it would have vitiated the film’s two unimpeachables: its conception of ’60s Brian as supernal boy genius, and its soundtrack. But by covering up for his lost ’80s mojo, the film does the man a disservice. Just because he sounds like he could do no wrong doesn’t mean he couldn’t.

And just because ‘Heroes and Villains’ is one of Brian’s most celebrated compositions doesn’t mean its title had to be the mantra behind the writing of all the film’s characters. Was Landy really that one-dimensional? Was Brian’s ’80s (and current) wife Melinda Kae Ledbetter really his sole soul saviour? And were the other two Wilson brothers really as creatively redundant as the movie portrays? In Pohlad’s vision, they’re the photogenic all-American non-entities a 21st-century audience might expect the backing vocalists on pre-’66 Beach Boys records to be — Sunny Delight to Brian’s Waitrose Freshly Squeezed. In the film, other than providing a counterbalance to cousin Mike’s retrograde philistinism, they seem to exist only for reasons of historical accuracy. It doesn’t seem quite fair; I know I’d take The Smile Sessions over Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE any day.

 

Speaking of historical accuracy — the filmmakers go to extraordinary (and often moving) lengths to preserve a sense of verisimilitude, which seems odd given that the story is so subjectively told from Brian’s point of view. In the ’60s scenes, this perspective is so singular that it becomes an aesthetic in itself — admittedly one of the film’s assets. But it feels myopic at points, and the self-pity the film denies ’60s Brian bleeds instead into the filmmakers’ perspective, as if the film exists purely to show how the wretched genius was given a hard time by just about everybody, but genius always prevails, etc. etc.. The Brian-centric aesthetic reaches its nadir in a 2001-esque scene in which ’50s Brian, ’60s Brian and ’80s Brian (and their acquaintances) are conflated. It’s hard to say why exactly this doesn’t work; I guess one might say it fails in the same way that some of the Beach Boys’ lesser stuff fails. Too much affect, not enough effect.

Not that there’s anything wrong with telling the story from Brian’s point of view. But even if we’re generous enough to ascribe the film’s simplicities to Brian’s simplistic worldview, we’re still faced with the fact that two-dimensional characters make two-dimensional cinema. OK, so Jake Abel’s character (obstinate cousin Mike Love)’s dialogue is dumb because it has to be. But a lot of the film’s dialogue in general is stultifying, and although this isn’t as much of a problem in the ’80s segments, when the simplistic language feels tailored to Brian’s regression, these segments constitute only half the film. And difficult bits are left unresolved — Mike Love puts up a hell of a fight against Brian’s wacky experimentalism, but we never see how Brian won the battles to include all those ostensibly aleatory irruptions (studio chatter, barking dogs) on Pet Sounds. Other than an all-too-brief cameo, we never get a sense of Van Dyke Parks’s contributions either.

There isn’t as much finesse in the visual editing as we might expect from a film about Brian Wilson. Pohlad should shoulder much of the blame for this — it feels like a film directed by a producer. The scene near the end, for instance, in which Melinda accidentally comes close to running Brian over with her car, contains a stretch of Brian persuading Melinda for well over a minute to take him for a drive. Where’s all the traffic? Why are there no cars behind Melinda, when the other lane is visibly busy? It obviously isn’t roadworks — the traffic resumes instantly when its abatement is no longer demanded by the script.

A minor quibble, perhaps; but it’s scenes like this that make the film seem at points like a trailer rather than a movie. Skilfully made and not entirely conventional, the film nonetheless has Hollywood written all over it.

But if there’s any justice, it won’t be long before Atticus Ross is knighted. His work on Love & Mercy’s soundtrack, with his brother Leopold, was apparently influenced by the Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9’ and The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, and it shows: his masterful melding of Wilsonian avant gardeand postmodern avant garde provides the film’s most effective and immersive insights into the boy genius’s mind. Naturally, they’re only really present in the ’60s segments, which is where the “Wilson aesthetic” is felt more strongly; but they’re the bits that stick with you after you leave the cinema.

 
Leopold and Atticus Ross

The soundtrack (which comprises ingenious rearrangements of Beach Boys songs, awash in gorgeous ambient electronic noise) pops up in various contexts. One scene involving cutlery is one of the most vivid depictions of claustrophobic synaesthesia seen on screen in a long while. But the soundtrack reaches its artistic and emotional peak in the three key scenes where we see Brian actually making the music.

The first of these is simple enough: Dano-as-Brian plays a piano demo of his newly composed ‘God Only Knows’, only for his father to dismiss it with increasingly harsh words. The scene has no right to be as nail-biting as it is: we know how history played out, and ‘God Only Knows’ is now a globally renowned love song. But watching Brian doubt himself in this scene is like watching All the President’s Men — we know how it all pans out, but we shrink in our seats because of the importance of what hangs in the balance.

The third music scene is also nail-biting, though this time it’s Mike Love who provides the antagonism. ‘It’s not “Beach Boys” fun,’ he protests upon hearing Brian’s arrangements for what will become most of the songs on Pet Sounds. ‘Even the happy songs are sad.’ Millions grew up on these songs, and so seeing misguided attempts to stifle them is difficult to watch.

But it is during the second music scene that the film reaches its visual and aural zenith; Pohlad and the Ross brothers deserve much of the credit for putting it together so perfectly. Spines were tingling continually all over the cinema. We see Brian, again at work on the Pet Sounds sessions — encouraging classical musicians to play out of key (this is a year before ‘A Day in the Life’, remember), coaxing dogs into the studio to bark into microphones (favourite line, lifted almost verbatim from the real-life sessions: ‘Hey Chuck, do you think we could get a horse in here?’), and placing paper clips on the piano strings to stunning effect (used most memorably on the song ‘You Still Believe In Me’). Dano-as-Brian starts singing a verse in his own voice, but the verse ends with ’60s Brian himself on the soundtrack, and we can’t even discern the join — testament to Dano’s mimicry and to the sharp work done by the movie’s sound engineers. Nicholas Renbeck, the supervising sound editor and music editor, deserves mention by name.

If you’re a fan of post-war popular music, see this film. If you’re interested in avant garde art, see this film. If you’re a fan of phenomenal film soundtracks, see this film. Remember its flaws, take it all with a pinch of salt, and let yourself in for a marvellous sensory experience.

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