Monday, November 02, 2015

"Amy" (dir. Asif Kapadia), "Love and Mercy" (dir. Bill Pohlad)

Long flights are a great chance for catching up on recent movies -- especially music-related ones!

This short commentary about the DVD release of "Amy" gets only one thing right -- the opening "Happy Birthday" scene is indeed the best moment of the film.  In those brief moments, we see a talented girl who loves to sing, no more and no less, it's the purest display of her gifts that we see in the movie.   Everything that follows is about juggling fame (or the need to become famous) with the expression of that talent.  That opening scene is shockingly normal -- it could almost be anyone's extroverted daughter singing -- and it's that normalcy that's been missing from the tabloid-driven Amy Winehouse narrative until now.  However, the movie does not perpetuate a myth in the same way that, for example, Jim Morrison worshippers perpetuate his myth by accentuating the most extreme moments of his life.  For Morrison acolytes, more debauchery is always better.  Any attempt to portray him as a human and not a cartoon character comes via his poetry (his nonsensically moronic poetry, that is).  

"Amy" wants us to desperately view her as a down to earth girl who was corrupted by outside influences, and we're reminded of this constantly through the voiceovers and interviews with family members and childhood friends.  Everything post-2007 felt like a mad dash to a depressing finish, the years of misery and gossip and paparazzi hounding are de-emphasized.  Living through it as a music fan felt like a long, scandalous slog.  Every day brought new and increasingly ridiculous rumours and articles about Winehouse, and those last four years of her life passed very slowly indeed.  But the movie "Amy" wants us to remember her audition for Island executives, sitting on a black couch playing sparse guitar lines and wowing the room with her unique voice and personal charm.  It wants us to picture her recording the song "Back To Black" acapella, not as a misbehaving drug addict but as a Ronnie Bennett superfan with an eccentric taste in hairdos.  The movie indulges in some myth-making by featuring Winehouse's poetry at various points but is careful to stick to the overall story by linking the meaning behind the words to real people and events that are described in the film.

The movie even glossed over the role that Winehouse's parents played in her career.  Their divorce, their manipulating influence on their daughter, their frequent post-death cash-ins (dueling biographies and other conveniently available merch) are almost totally ignored, such is the director's dedication to keeping mud-slinging and finger-pointing out of his film.  Even Winehouse's ex-husband gets off easy.  In these cases I saw red flags because you'd expect this documentary to at least attempt to provide some answers, but it's simply not willing to go down that route.  


"Love and Mercy" tells two halves of a story in two very different ways.  This was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who could have picked one actor to play Brian Wilson in both time frames but instead chose to highlight the contrast between the dynamic but confused Wilson of the 60's and the just plain confused Wilson of the 80's.  The scenes set in the 60's are time machine-like in their accuracy and vividness, and Paul Dano convincingly transforms himself into Wilson right down to his voice and piano playing. A special mention also goes to Jake Abel for absolutely nailing the essence of Mike Love, including his on-stage mannerisms.  I can't think of another movie that puts this much emphasis on the action inside a recording studio, often eschewing even dialogue in favour of letting ostensibly tedious (in real life) recording sessions carry the story.  

Paul Giamatti is terrifying as Dr. Eugene Landy, easily the most despised and yet mysterious character in the greater Beach Boys story.  Supposedly the real person was even more over the top, I figure they had to scale him back for the movie lest nobody believe that this vile human being was a real person.  The most glaring weakness lies with John Cusack's performance, which is too close to the socially awkward characters he has played in many other movies.  I couldn't buy the realism of his performance at all -- I could only see John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack movie, and couldn't reconcile that person with the mentally ill musical genius he was supposed to be portraying.   

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