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Love and Mercy

“Love & Mercy” – Mostly Good Vibrations: A Film Review.

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If you remember the 1960’s classic album Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love & Mercy.”

In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and teen life results in destructive adult behavior. Based on a biography of Brian Wilson, “Love & Mercy” tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which never seemed to heal.

But a tragic childhood can have moments of redemption and hope. This film has both, with the introduction of Melinda Ledbetter (played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks, earlier seen in the film “Invincible”).

Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing… How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

Melindal Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”

Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”

Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.

And that dialogue foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love & Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Eugene Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash.”

And the music! It is absolutely essential to evoking and understanding the time period and the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” provides a hint as to why Wilson is considered to be one of the greats in music. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and the seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him.

Beach Boys Concert poster

Understanding Wilson’s revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals) is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however, was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.

“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws, especially if the viewer is aware of the details of Wilson’s life. In portraying the two lives of Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), the movie sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a bigger story. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Wilson’s family intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation? Who finally bought the legal challenge that ended Landy’s guardianship of Brian? Since Wilson’s father Murry is featured in several abusive encounters, one is left to wonder how he was treated by his mother Audree.

Brian with She & Him No Pier Pressure

Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to become a classic not just for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. The single “Good Vibrations” was a signal to the world of Brian Wilson’s unique musical genius. “Love & Mercy” is a paean to the ongoing glory of Brian Wilson.

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

You can read more from writer-author, artist and instructor Diana Y. Paul by visiting her blog, Unhealed Wound, at:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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Photographs and Memories

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo, $25.00, 307 pages)

In I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, the wife of the late singer-songwriter has put together a moving, direct, and fully engaging biography.   The 300 pages seem to fly by and Ingrid Croce – assisted by her second husband Jimmy Rock – has done something that most musician biographers fail to do.   She uses the lyrics to 33 Jim Croce songs to demonstrate how the events in Croce’s life directly shaped his music.

Jim Croce knew individuals named Leroy Brown, Big Jim Walker and Willie McCoy; they were not just figments of a wild imagination.   His ballads and love songs were usually based on the often contentious relationship between himself and Ingrid.   One story told by Ingrid reads like a scene out of film…  Jim and Ingrid have a major dispute, and Jim walks away leaving her sobbing in the bedroom.   A couple of hours later, by way of apology, he returns to sing her a song he has just written – I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.

Ingrid does not pull any punches about Jim’s flaws.   He had a lot of anger (much of it having to do with his parent’s insistence that he not “waste” his college education on a music career), abused prescription medication, and was often unfaithful… However, her love for him as a person shines through on every page of this sometimes emotional work.

One of the shocks for the reader is finding out that while Croce made millions of dollars for his record company, he never saw any of it during his short life of 30 years.   Near the end of his life, he had no more than $40 in his pocket, saved out of a weekly travel per diem of just $200.   It took years and decades of litigation for Ingrid to receive what was due.

“I know he will be with me forever.”

It was shortly before his death in an airplane crash that Croce appeared to be coming apart at the seams.   (A psychic had earlier told him that his son would be raised with only one parent.)   He wrote a letter of love and regrets to Ingrid:  “I know that I haven’t been very nice to you for some time…  I know that you see me for what I am…”   It was a letter that she was to receive after his death.

Croce also told Ingrid in the letter of his plan to separate himself from life on the road and rededicate himself to his wife and toddler son:  “…I want to be the oldest man around, a man with a face full of wrinkles and lots of wisdom.   Give a kiss to my little man and tell him Daddy loves him.   Remember, it’s the first sixty years that count and I’ve got thirty to go.   I love you.”

A long life was not to be, but we have Jim Croce’s amazing music to remember him by.   We now also have this loving remembrance from a strong, but still somewhat heartbroken, woman.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  The Foreward to I Got a Name was written by Arlo Guthrie.

Note:  The song I Got a Name, featured so well in the film Invincible (set in Jim Croce’s hometown of Philadelphia), was the one song sung by Croce that he did not write.

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Hungry Like the Wolf

The Wolves of Fairmount Park: A Crime Novel by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

“Somebody out there has turned a gun on two kids.   Whoever did it might be locked up now, and they might not.   If they weren’t locked up, then they were on the street and not far away.   It wasn’t six degrees out here, separating the guilty from the innocent, the living from the dead.   It was two degrees.”

This would have made for a great two-hour made for TV movie – a decade or two or more ago – when people felt they still had the time to watch such things.   Two outstanding males of high school age are shot (and one is killed) in front of  a drug house in Philadelphia, a killing which has shocked the community and the entire city.   The old guard police chief wants the crime solved by yesterday, so he turns to his most on-the-make young detective; a kid with a proven track record (the department’s “boy wonder”), and the best of instincts.

But there are two other individuals who have their own reasons for beating the detective at his own game.   One is the police officer father of the surviving high school students, who feels guilty over his shaming of a son who he viewed as less than masculine.   Then there’s the officer’s troubled and drug-abusing half-brother who sees this as his chance for redemption within the family.

As these protagonists engage in a race to solve the crime in a dangerous environment, things quickly become far more dangerous.   Control of the drug trade in this community already changed hands once in the recent past, and now there’s a full-fledged war to see which adult gang will control the multi-million dollar trade in the future.   This is a war fought with automatic weapons and snipers; a war in which friends betray friends.   The winners will be able to buy anything they want in life, the losers will be dead.

“The city was a box between the two rivers, a couple of miles up and down.   Chances were he really did already know the shooters.   And that they knew him.”

Our fourth major character is the city of Philadelphia, Philly, which is anything but inspiring or glamorous.   This is the tough and downtrodden city seen in the film Invincible, in which most folks are out of work and one’s leisure time is spent in dive bars and strip clubs.   The only job training program available is run by the drug dealers who own “the corners”, and it’s a program that is far from being sanctioned by the federal government.

“He thought about how everyone thought they had the right to do whatever they did.   Everything, no matter what.”   

Author Dennis Tafoya does not easily or readily give up information to the reader, which in this context is a good thing.   The reader will be almost two-thirds of the way through the story before learning the simple reason the two young men were standing in front of a drug house on a dangerous night.   Tafoya makes you work for it, to become invested in his tough and gritty story.   It is an investment that pays off extremely well in the end.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Another Rookie

The Long Snapper by Jeffrey Marx (Harper One, $24.99, 245 pages)

The Long Snapper would be a charming true story except that we’ve read and seen it before.   In the book and film version of The Rookie (Dennis Quaid starred in the movie), we were told the true story of Jim Morris, a professional baseball player who becomes a school teacher when his athletic career is over.   Years pass before he’s suddenly contacted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who want him to try out for a pitching opening.   He’s undecided but his students encourage him to take the try-out, and this “rookie” returns to “the Show.”

Take the exact same story and substitute the football player Brian Kitchen for Morris and you have The Long Snapper.   Kinchen played pro football for 12 years before losing his job and becoming a school teacher.   Two years pass and then guess what?   Oh, yes, the same thing that happened in The Rookie.   Except that Kinchen is invited to try out for a team that’s two wins away from the Super Bowl.

You can probably guess what the ending is going to be.   Does our hero come through in the Big Game?   The climax will only surprise those who haven’t seen Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, Invincible or Remember the Titans.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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