BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD (2021, doc)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Renowned music producer Don Was sits at a sound board and methodically begins to deconstruct the gorgeous song, “God Only Knows”. As the instruments fade, and he shuffles the isolated vocals, Was shakes his head in amazement all these years later. The man behind the song, Brian Wilson (founder of The Beach Boys), was and remains a musical genius, and in his case, one need not be concerned about applying that overused label.

If director Brent Wilson’s film has a structure, it comes in the form of multiple car rides and diner lunches featuring Brian and his friend, “Rolling Stone” editor Jason Fine. Due to Brian’s anxiety during sit-down interviews, car rides and chats with his friend provide more comfort and free him up to reminisce and discuss his life and music. On the drives, Brian chooses the songs he wants Jason to play, depending on the mood and the topic of conversation.

Mental Health is now treated much differently than in years past. At age 21, Brian suffered from ‘auditory hallucinations’ – he was hearing voices in his head. Over the course of 6 decades, he has attempted to deal with the voices in various ways: food, drugs, alcohol, therapy, etc. But his only real escape has been through music. Even today, Brian never really looks at ease unless he’s performing his songs. He rides along offering commentary as his friend Jason tenderly guides him through the past, including stops at his childhood home in Hawthorne, Paradise Cove where an album cover was shot, his home on Laurel Way that featured his piano in a sandbox, and the Bellagio Road mansion in Beverly Hills. Brian is not one to dwell on the past, but he has tremendous recall for different phases of life.

As you might expect, many musicians are eager to discuss how Brian’s music with The Beach Boys influenced their own songwriting. Included here are Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers and son of Bob), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Hawkins, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Nick Jonas. We presume the latter was included to represent the younger generation’s appreciation of music past. Elton may offer the most profound comment when he states Brian deserves accolades for his music AND his life. Each phase of Brian’s life is touched on, though we never dive too deeply. His demanding father (Murray Wilson) is heard through audio recordings, and the infamous “Landy years” where Dr. Eugene Landy literally controlled Brian’s life (right down to a sad story of spaghetti) are briefly dealt with, allowing us some insight into Brian’s many challenges over the years – including the death of two brothers, (and Beach Boys) Carl and Dennis.

But it’s the music that means the most to Brian and to us. We get some clips of live performances from the early days of The Beach Boys to the more recent live performances of Brian on stage. There is a terrific montage blending Carl’s and Brian’s separate singing “God Only Knows”, and Brian disclosing that “Good Vibrations” was recorded in pieces at 4 different studios to capture the sound he wanted. He also admits to being inspired by The Beatles and wanting to eclipse their work – which led to his writing the masterpiece Pet Sounds album, in turn inspiring The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper. There is a brief clip of Brian’s cousin, and fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine commenting on Brian’s immense talent, but as expected, there is nothing from Mike Love; although Brian graciously proclaims Mike Love was “a great singer”.

Brian’s Beach Boys music has brought so much joy to listeners and fans over the years, and it’s truly fascinating to see how he has battled through a life filled with sadness and obstacles. Watching him listen to brother Dennis’s solo album, learning how he re-worked his unfinished Smile album to finally release it in 2004, or seeing clips of his live Pet Sounds performance at The Hollywood Bowl helps us understand the healing power of music. Brian has been compared to Mozart, and his fellow musicians discuss how his genius and vision shines through in song structure and texture. Brian Wilson stands as proof that for a true artist, pain and beauty are often linked and dependent on each other. The film’s closing credits feature footage of Brian and Jim James recording a new song, “Right Where I Belong”, showing that the music (and the man) is still a force.

In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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DIFF 2015 – Day 10

April 24, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 10 – Sunday April 19

The festival comes to an end on a high note, and once again, I recommend DIFF for any movie lover who wants to overdose on independent films and documentaries without fighting the crowds of Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.  It’s a very well run festival and, with 160 films on the schedule., likely holds multiple films for you – regardless of your movie tastes.  My final three movies of this year’s festival:

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

love and mercy Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band’s creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960’s period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980’s – his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It’s during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian’s new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian’s life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian’s genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues.  It’s a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as “The Wrecking Crew” … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It’s during this period that the Wilson brothers’ father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his “new” music.  There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected “fun” style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Mostly, I found the 1960’s portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it’s like “Someone is inside me. Not me.” His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the “sunny” music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda’s strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

MANGLEHORN (2015)

manglehorn Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970’s cinema, it’s been painful to watch Al Pacino’s career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it’s time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV’s “Eastbound & Down”, and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions “locked” away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn’s brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, “When you choose this life, there is no one”. It’s a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn’s daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

SLOW WEST (2015)

slow west Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay’s babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector.  There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas’ motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay’s mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel’s (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It’s likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.