Grappling with ‘Love and Mercy’ and ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’
Few things have been as destructive to rock ’n’ roll—or, indeed, to the creation of any great art—as the misguided notion that the most brilliant artists are in some way seriously damaged or deranged, whether because of mental illness, substance abuse, or both. This enduring myth often is blamed on the Romantic poets, rock stars one and all, though it’s a perversion of what they actually believed.
In charting the ideals of the Romantic movement in the 1802 preface of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth wrote, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” In other words, good art is hard work. “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” goes the quote often attributed to Thomas Edison. Geniuses create despite—not because of—their troubles and pains.
Fearing that, despite the near-universally glowing reviews, the recent Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy and the Kurt Cobain documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck would fail to make this distinction and instead play into that too-often-fatal myth, I avoided both when they were released early last summer. The music means too much for me to endure that lie for another second. But in the last week, I finally worked up the courage to deal with them—and my fears were not unfounded.
To be sure, there are good things about both films. Paul Dano is extraordinary as the young Wilson in director Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy, and as the friend who urged me to finally watch it rightly noted, the scenes in the recording studio highlighting the crafting of the immortal Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” with the Wrecking Crew were perfect (though the notion that session drummer Hal Blaine was the first to encourage Brian to view himself as a genius was a cheap bit of screenwriting nonsense; in numerous interviews through the years, including a recent chat with Sound Opinions, Blaine has offered very little insight into Wilson, and Wilson was no doubt already well aware of his musical talents before being told about them by the hired help, thank you very much).
The cons in Love and Mercy far outweigh the pros. As reprehensible as much of what they did may have been, the movie’s patriarch Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) and Svengali psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamitti) are one-dimensional super-villains who take advantage of the boy genius while inflicting unspeakable pain in pursuit of their own enrichment. Brian’s life has often been reduced to a progression of people taking advantage of him, though the movie’s portrait of his current wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) borders on saintly, even as the former car dealer turned artist manager could just as easily be seen as the latest user. (Ledbetter consulted on the film; Murry and Landy conveniently are dead.)
Current Beach Boys leader Mike Love (Jake Abel) also comes off as a tool, deriding the orchestral brilliance of Pet Sounds—something he’s always denied doing—but the conservative idiot certainly ain’t wrong in scoffing at the miserable mess of the Smile sessions, or strongly disliking Van Dyke Parks. I’m right there with him on both counts. Genius Brian certainly was and is not infallible.
Having interviewed the artist, I find John Cusack’s version of the older Wilson not nearly as sad and unnerving as the real man, who presents like a stroke victim. That’s a clumsy writer’s description, mind you, not an armchair diagnosis, and the lack of any factual examination in the movie of Brian’s real problems ultimately is its biggest flaw. A short note at the end of the film tells us Landy wrongly diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic with manic depression; these days, Ledbetter says he has schizoaffective disorder.
Absent any facts backing that up, the movie once again leaves us with the impression that Wilson simply was “touched”—blessed by his angels and tormented by his devils—and never mind the painstaking work, discipline, and calculation of, say, sitting with veteran advertising jingle writer Tony Asher to pair lyrics to the music he was writing for Pet Sounds.
If you don’t care about musical history and just want a pleasant fictional diversion, like the similarly fact-challenged Straight Outta Compton (on course to be the biggest-grossing film of the year), Love and Mercy is primo Hollywood fluff. Bring on the popcorn! But Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary, so its flaws are more gnawing.
Brett Morgen’s Francis Bean Cobain-approved doc does us a service in trotting out home movies of baby and toddler Kurt (whose upbringing seems stunningly normal, despite the pain of divorce and parental shunning during his teen years), and seeing Kurt and Courtney blissfully happy together and in the presence of their daughter should be revelatory to those eager to characterize La Love as the wicked demoness plotting the murder of her innocent husband.
The straight talk from former girlfriend Tracey Marander and former bandmate Krist Novoselic also is welcome, even if the rest of the overly long film is determined to undermine Marander’s message that Cobain relied on hard work rather than divine revelation and Novoselic’s observation that everything we need to know about the man is in his art (so we ought to just shut up and listen).
If Cobain: Montage of Heck simply paired Nirvana’s music with the home movies, it would have been easier to champion, if still not significant for a better understanding of the artist. But the attempt to tell a visual life story a la the William S. Burroughs cut-and-paste methodology that Cobain used for his lyrics is a wretched mess, with needless animation of Kurt’s scrawling in his journals and even more unnecessary cartoon renditions of scenes from his life, sometimes paired with dramatic readings by an actor that are not identified as such. Meanwhile, how about some more of that footage of the man and his band actually doing the work of crafting In Utero at Pachyderm with Steve Albini?
Context is missing throughout: Footage is never identified, the timeline becomes extremely fuzzy, and while much is made of the pressures of stardom taking its toll on the sensitive artist, there is no attempt to delve into the role of those around him in the industry in enabling his addiction and self-destruction. In the end, it’s still those damn angels—the songs were a gift from god—and devils; woe unto the forces that took him from us, and fie upon the inconvenient fact that Kurt ultimately was responsible for Kurt’s end!
“Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club,” Kurt’s mom Wendy Fradenburg Cobain O’Connor said upon hearing the news of his suicide at the storied age of 27, same as Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse. (She doesn’t say anything as powerful in the film, and comes off as way creepier than Courtney.)
Again, as someone who interviewed the man—and found him much, much smarter, more calculating, and more aware of himself and the game than he ever is given credit for—there’s a hell of a lot more to Kurt’s story than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clichéd narrative you can hear being crafted by the mainstream press via the superficial questions from David Fricke, who gets a big fat thank you in the end along with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner.
Sorry, but corporate magazines still suck. And so do corporate movies peddling the same tired faux-Romantic crap. Meanwhile, as Novoselic says, the music is all that matters, and to hell with the myth.
Rating for Love and Mercy on the four-stare scale: 2.5 stars.
Rating for Cobain: Montage of Heck: 1.5 stars.