Alissa's note: The 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival has kicked off in Austin, Texas, and we've got a critic on the ground. Check back each day this week for festival postcards with snapshots of films to be looking for in the months ahead.
“I think Brian has a lot of angels around him.”
That’s what John Cusack said about Brian Wilson, whom he plays in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy. Pohlad and Cusack fell into the role of guardian angels as well when they met press, including CT, at this year’s SXSW alongside Wilson himself. The former Beach Boy admitted that there are parts of the film that are still too hard for him to watch, but he made himself available to the filmmakers to help them craft a personal film.
Wilson also vouched for the accuracy of the film, though Pohlad emphasized that Love & Mercy is intended as an intimate portrait of Wilson from the singer’s point of view. Cusack said twice that no film could capture the entirety of a person’s life, and that this one was meant to convey only particular parts of Wilson’s. It was impossible to spend any amount of time with Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter—Cusack “greedily” accepted all the time he could as a guest in their home—without being impressed by how fiercely they love one another.
The film captures that love well. Wilson said that when he was watching the film’s production, it felt as though Cusack and co-star Elizabeth Banks genuinely loved each other when they played him and his wife. Owen Moverman’s script focuses on two distinct periods in Wilson’s life, with Cusack playing the older, reclusive Wilson under the care and influence of Dr. Carl Landy and Paul Dano playing the musician as a young man. (Cusack said he and Dano did not collaborate to try to create consistent mannerisms but trusted that the script, based on Wilson’s memories, would paint a unified portrait of the character.)
Love & Mercy played well at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and it holds up well to a second viewing. What elevates it above many musical biopics is how much compassion and empathy permeate the project. Ledbetter, in a sense, stands in for the audience; her heart goes out to Wilson before she knows who he is. As she discovers his story, so do we. As she moves through shock, anger, and fear, so do we. The film is centered around the creation of the song “God Only Knows,” but its heart and soul is the love story.
Music and musicians always play a large role at SXSW, and this year’s offerings are no exception. Another film playing at the festival, TheEcstasy of Wilko Johnson, provides a fascinating profile of the Dr. Feelgood singer and guitarist who was told he had just a few months left to live due to inoperable cancer. “What cannot be cured must be endured,” he intones.
Remaining “absolutely” an atheist, Johnson claims to have passed directly over the anger stage of grief: “Who’s there to get angry with?” The film doesn’t try to make a theological argument, but that character’s atheism made it harder for me to relate to Johnson or connect with him on an emotional level. And yet, though the portrait of a man facing his own mortality with stoic acceptance is moving enough, Johnson’s story takes yet another turn when a long-shot surgery actually works and he receives a reprieve from his death sentence.
However, while Johnson is in a singular position to reflect on living in the shadow of death, his analysis never quite extends beyond that of aphorism. “If you are not afraid of death, you can achieve anything.” That’s inspiring, but is it true?
“I hope I’m worthy of this,” he adds. What does that mean? If there is nobody to be angry with when he is dying, why is a slightly longer life something he must be “worthy” of? “I’m almost glad this happened,” he concludes. Why “almost”?
A slightly more successful film for music fans is 808, a profile of—wait for it—the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The film features interviews with musicians from Phil Collins to The Beastie Boys to chronicle how a seemingly simple piece of equipment used by church organists, DJs, and rappers helped usher in an age of electronic music.
808 also doubles as a primer on the differences between the sounds and styles coming from New York, London, Chicago, Miami, Italy, and even India. By the end I was a little lost under the barrage of names, but I was still surprised by the extent of influence that one piece of equipment had on an entire industry.
Collins wryly observes during the film that the beauty of the TR-808 is that actual drummers usually want to improvise with fills and variations, while the drum machine will cheerfully spit out the same beat for as long as you need it to keep going. But the live drummer does have at least one advantage: he won’t short out if someone spills a pint of beer on him!
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.