Love & Mercy. God Only Knows What Musical Genius Takes

Love-and-Mercy-Poster-2015En route to a preview screening of Love & Mercy, The Sloth was shocked to discover that a junior colleague in attendance “didn’t really know” The Beach Boys. Granted, said colleague was probably born when The Sloth was guzzling K Cider and shoe-gazing to Suede the first time round, but still. Good Vibrations is something babies can gurgle on emergence from the womb, no?

Having given said colleague a stern dressing down, we settled back. Love & Mercy is a dramatisation of the life of Brian Wilson, roundly acknowledged to be the creative force behind The Beach Boys and a bona fide musical genius. Split between his early career in the band and his later struggles with mental illness, it eschews a chronological approach to instead jump back and forth in time, with the younger Wilson played by Paul Dano and the older by John Cusack.

We first meet an older, shaky, ill Brian buying a Cadillac from attractive car dealer Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).  Striking up a rapport, Brian asks her out. But dating Brian is no simple matter. Pumped full of drugs and monitored 24/7 by the oppressive, controlling Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), it soon becomes clear that Brian’s life is not his own.

It’s easy to assume Brian Wilson’s later troubles resulted directly from 60’s ‘excess’ but, as Melinda gets to know Brian, so do we. We see the young Brian, clearly a fragile and sensitive soul to begin with, derided, mocked and tormented by a cruel father. We see the older Brian verbally abused and manipulated by Dr Landy. Fortunately for Brian, Melinda decides to do something about it.

And throughout it all we have the music. Paul Dano is stunning as the young Wilson, doing his own playing and singing in a manner that doesn’t just mimic, but somehow captures his spirit. A semi-improvised scene of a young Wilson on a creative high, frantically directing a wonderstruck studio full of musicians to play in entirely new ways, reminds us just how innovative he was.

Love & Mercy is a captivating, emotional tribute to genius and a warning note to the price it can cost. If you have any interest in music, any at all, go see. Then dig out your copy of Pet Sounds and play it with new reverence. Oh, and my junior colleague? He absolutely loved it. Mr Wilson, your legend lives on.

UK release 10 July

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Maps To The Stars – John Cusack Interview

MTTS_BR_3DHe’s been a Hollywood star since his teens and now John Cusack stars in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Starsa cutting satire about Hollywood players, wannabes and has-beens. Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a self-help guru who peddles his therapies to the narcissistic and weak-minded and who is also father to the foul Benjie (Evan Bird), a rehab-hopping teen star. But just how like Stafford is he? The Sloth got the lowdown:

Q: You were a young star in your teens like Benjie. Did you relate to him?
A: I was older than him [when I started acting], and I wasn’t in a huge Hollywood franchise. I just got to work as an actor. But just the idea of being that young and having that much pressure on you, and being at the very height of Hollywood, would be terrible to think about.

Q: Do you see a relationship between therapy and acting?
A: I think a lot of actors feel that the act of doing those things is somehow therapeutic for them. You obviously have some things you need to release. So it’s an intuitive thing, to go towards the flame – so we must know that there’s stuff we better get out.

Q: How would you describe Stafford – a charlatan?
A: Yeah, sure – an exploitative charlatan of Biblical proportions!

Q: But are these types very prevalent in LA?
A: Sure. You talk about the California of the Fifties and Sixties; Joan Didion says there is a Chekhovian sense of loss and uneasiness in the air – and this is a loose quote and I’m probably getting it wrong – as if all the people there thought we better make it here, because if not, we’ve run out of continent! So I think that environment leads to all sorts of free, original thinking, but also desert crazies! And all the people that prey on those people. We were just noticing in LA that there were these things – agents and managers. Then I realised there were these things called ‘life coaches’.

Q: Did you know much about them?
A: Well, I knew about Tony Robbins. I loved the ‘personal power’ things. I don’t know much about Tony, but it seems like he has this act of will – like Scientology. These evangelising shrink coaches…it’s got to be only in LA, right? It’s the place where the guy who ran The Source – a health food restaurant – started a cult in the Seventies and they were called the Source Family and he proclaimed himself a divine being and he had followers. It was a cult! So LA’s got something special!

Q: Your character seems very cynical…
A: That’s what Bruce writes. The first thing he writes is, ‘Say what you want about the Dalai Lama but the man’s a pro.’ He’s not even considering that he might mean it or not. There’s an element that every human interaction is a transaction. It’s all currency. What am I going to get? What’s my angle? And that’s connected to showbiz.

Q: Were you worried about biting the hand that feeds?
A: No! I don’t care about any of that!

Q: You’re very active on Twitter. What do you like about it?
A: What I think is interesting is the idea that you can curate content. If I like somebody’s stuff, I can say, ‘If you think I’m interesting, I’ll tell you who I think is interesting’, and you trust me. And also, it’s impossible to kill art. You can’t do it. You can’t bury anything. So, yeah, I like it – it’s fun!

Q: Doesn’t your publicist tell you to hold back?
A: No, and that’s good. The other thing is, it’s changed the way movies are distributed, it’s changed the way movies are marketed. People are going to have their opinion from the screenings. Critics will do what they want to do, and they’ll sway people, but people are going to listen more to each other than they listen to authority – so it’s kinda cool.

Q: Do you ever re-watch your old films?
A: No. Well, sometimes on TV, I might stop and watch for a while until it gets too painful. I remember one time, The Grifters was on. I’ve worked with Stephen Frears, who is such a great director, twice. And I remember stopping and watching it – it was Annette [Bening] and Angelica [Huston], and I started to watch the story a little bit, and then I came on, and I saw myself differently. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’

Q: How do you choose your films? 
A: I’m up to do anything if it’s with a good filmmaker and a good script. I think that movies are like dreams; you can play any role in the dream, and there are lots of different dreams. I like to play any version, any role in the drama – it doesn’t matter.

Maps To The Stars is available on Blu-Ray and DVD on 2nd February, courtesy of Entertainment One.

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Maps To The Stars. Burn, Hollywood, Burn.

20140415153532!Maps_to_the_Stars_posterAs a subject, Hollywood loves nothing better than Hollywood, but most often in self-reverential terms. With the ridiculousness of La La Land ripe for satire, we can only assume Hollywood doesn’t go down that route too often as all those needy, neurotic actors find playing needy, neurotic actors a bit too close to the bone.  So for David Cronenberg’s satirical Maps To The Stars he did the only sensible thing – call the fearless Julianne Moore.

A warts-and-all dissection of celebrity, Maps To The Stars focuses on seemingly casually interlinked characters. Julianne plays the wonderfully named Havana Segrand, a needy, neurotic actor on the wrong side of the age hill. Havana chain smokes, has massage/therapy sessions with guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) to work through her mother-issues and chases an ever-decreasing pool of parts. In need of a personal assistant to do all the tricky stuff she can’t manage – move pot plants, buy Tampax – she employs Agatha (Mia Wasikowska).

New in town and sporting long black leather gloves to hide scars from a house fire, Agatha is an unnerving presence. Befriending bored limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), who is at pains to point out he is actually an actor and writer and thinking of converting to Scientology as a career move, she is cagey about her backstory.  And with good reason.

Our final main player is Benji Weiss (Evan Bird), teenage star of a hugely successful sitcom and son of guru Dr Stafford Weiss. fresh out of rehab, Benji is spoilt, brattish and odious to everyone who has the misfortune to meet him.

Inevitably, as more about them is revealed, our cast of miscreants become increasingly intertwined and brought down by their own flaws. Mercilessly skewering the self-obsession, narcissism and selfishness of a town where one person’s personal tragedy becomes another’s career opportunity, it is satirical often to the point of viciousness. And needless to say, Julianne Moore is on predictably magnificent form. Cracking stuff. As long as you’re not an ac-tor…

UK release 26 September

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Grand Piano. Musical Mayhem.

grandDid you know that Elijah Wood, as well as possessing a pair of Gremlin goggle-eyes, also possesses a virtuoso piano playing talent? No? Nor did The Sloth. Prepare to be properly impressed as he tinkles all of his own ivories in bonkers thriller Grand Piano.

Tom (Elijah Wood) is a retired concert pianist. Retired not because he is old and decrepit, but because years ago he suffered a seisimic attack of stage fright that ended his acclaimed career. Now, with encouragement from his glamorous movie-star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), he is making a comeback, attempting to play a fiendishly difficult concerto to a packed and expectant audience.

So far so nerve-jangling (for Tom, not the audience – that would make a rum thriller). But, as if he wasn’t uptight enough, Tom then discovers a cryptic note scrawled on his music score proclaiming ‘play one wrong note and you die’.  Whatever happened to ‘break a leg?’ And who could be responsible for such a dastardly deed? A disgruntled critic? The mild mannered janitor? With the curtain about to rise Tom, practically comatose with fear, has no time to ponder but takes to the stage to literally play for his life.

This sounds daft and yes, it is properly daft. A schlocky B-movie / Hitchcockian thriller mash up with a side order of Speed. But primarily thanks to Elijah Wood’s sheer boggle-eyed commitment to the role, plus a deranged turn from John Cusack as a fiendish rent-a-villain, on a delightfully camp and OTT level it somehow works. Although if you’re expecting a second helping of The Pianist, despite Elijah’s spectacular playing, we recommend you look elsewhere.

UK release 19 September.

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