As Love Bites, a delightful 2014 short film by Agaki Bautista, Aram Davern, Michael De Caria, and Jonathon Iskov (then students at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment Sydney), with music by Peter Lam makes gorgeously clear, love is but an appetiser to a yummy testosterone-laced meal.
Only someone forgot to give the adorable young Cecil the memo.
The young male praying mantis sweetly and naively ties a bow around a pretty red ladybird before setting off for what he imagines will be the realisation of all his romantic mantis dreams.
But as the heads of other male mantises start to fall around him, he realises love may be more of a degustation than a delight.
But might he defy the odds and find sweet insect love after all?
Anything is possible in the magically wonderful world of Love Bites.
Assuming the venus fly traps allow you to live and tell the tale …
Spotlight stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, and Stanley Tucci. It tells the riveting true story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation team who uncovered a scandal that would rock the city and shock the world. For years, whispers of the Boston Archdiocese’s cover up of sexual abuse within the Catholic church were largely ignored by the media, the police and the legal system. Against all odds, the spotlight team fought to expose the truth. (synopsis via Film School Rejects)
It takes a special kind of person to take on the great injustices of the world.
They need to be brave, intrepid, not easily dissuaded, and staunch believers in the fight ahead.
And they need to be ready for the consequences that will come their way, because as sure as night follows day, the foul things that hide in the dark will rise up and seek retribution, especially if they know their reign is at an end.
What makes these kinds of stories such riveting viewing precisely is that all these qualities are usually exemplified in people that in every other way are quite ordinary but when called to, rise up and behave in extraordinary ways.
What makes the actions of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight so noteworthy is that it was their investigations, undertaken when all the powers that be were studiously looking the other way, that exposed a wider nationwide scandal throughout the USA and the world, one that is still playing out all these years later.
Fighting for the truth, for justice is taxing, exhausting and takes everything from a person but it also makes the world an infinitely better place.
Which is precisely why movies like Spotlight must be supported so we can be reminded again that the price of justice is eternal vigilance and that each of us have a role to play in ensuring this vigilance never waivers.
Spotlight premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before opening in USA on 6 November 2015.
Back in 1979, Rupert Holmes released a song called “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” which mused that all you really needed was a shared love of Piña Coladas, getting caught in the rain, and making love in the dunes at midnight to effectively get away from the banality of the everyday (in this case a tired old love affair).
To this list, which to be fair is hardly exhaustive (it wasn’t meant to be of course; you can only fit so much in a 3 minute pop song), I would add some imaginatively-premised, well-written sci-fi or fantasy shows like Colony, The Expanse and The Shannara Chronicles, all of which made their trailer premieres at the recently-staged San Diego Comic-Con.
All of them whisk you off to places and times and lands far removed from your own, and which to one degree or another, make you infinitely glad your life is as happily banal as it is.
Because intoxicating though adventure and great drama might be, it comes at a price.
Earth, possibly the most invaded planet in the galaxy – I sometimes imagine a long line of alien ships stretched out to Pluto waiting for their chance to have a crack at the “Blue Planet” – is up to its neck in aliens again.
But these extraterrestrial invaders are, rather cleverly, keeping themselves hidden away, letting their human collaborators do their bidding for them, remaking our world in their unseen masters’ image.
Naturally not everyone on planet Earth thinks this is a super good idea with many choose to rebel against their new oppressive overlords.
The central characters in Colony, Will and Kate Bowman (played by Josh Holloway, Lost, and Sarah Wayne Collies, The Walking Dead) face an invidious choice when Josh is captured by the occuupiers while trying to find his 12 year old who has been spirited away from a fortified, occupied L.A. – do he collaborate or rebel? Does he even have a choice?
Colony, from the hand of Carlton Cuse (Lost, The Strain) looks like the TV love child of Falling Skies, and House of Cards,an alien invasion drama that rests just as much on realpolitik as it does on humanity’s desperate fight to remain free.
Colony premieres a 10 episode season on USA Network in the US autumn.
If you were told, 200 years into the future, that more trouble and death awaited you if you headed out into our now fully-settled solar system to find just one woman, would you go?
If you’re Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) and first Jim Holden (Steven Strait), the first officer of the ship taking Miller to his destination, then you most definitely would.
You would be unaware however that the woman you seek, one Juliette Andromeda Mao (Florence Faivre) is the key to a vast conspiracy, and by the time you do find out, you will be left with one choice – fight or walk away and let hidden powers of nefarious intent get their way.
Based on the epic series by James S. A. Corey, syfy’s new series, The Expanse, promises intrigue, adventure and humanity on a grand and gripping scale.
The Expanse premieres its first 10 episode season this December on syfy.
This time all the epicness is flowing from an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ The Shannara Chronicles which is set, according to Deadline, “thousands of years after the destruction of our civilization. The story revolves around the Shannara family, whose descendants are empowered with ancient magic and whose adventures continuously reshape the future of the world.”
In the film, Snoopy, the world’s most lovable beagle – and flying ace – embarks upon his greatest mission as he takes to the skies to pursue his arch-nemesis The Red Baron, while his best pal, Charlie Brown, begins his own epic quest. The Peanuts Movie is being directed by Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who!) and produced by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy).
The team behind the upcoming The Peanuts Movie, which includes the son and grandson of the much-loved comic strips’ creator, Craig and Bryan Schulz, continue to impress with their commitment to honouring the spirit and legacy of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang.
It’s been evident in every trailer so far and in the social media activities they’ve undertaken to promote their very modern yet wholly classic 3D animated take on Peanuts, that they understand why it is we love “Good ol’ Charlie Brown” so much and are determined to preserve it even as they push the boundaries of what the comic stripmeans to a modern generation.
Their sensitively adventurous approach to The Peanuts Movie continues with the latest TV spot, a trailer specifically designed to honour Franklin Armstrong, who appeared in Peanuts on July 31, 1968 as the first African-American character in the comic strip:
“The creation of Franklin Armstrong was inspired by Los Angeles school teacher Harriet Glickman, who wrote to Schulz in April 1968, just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., urging the cartoonist to introduce black children into the popular strip in an effort to help influence attitudes about race. That began an earnest three-month correspondence, displayed last year at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, culminating in the introduction of Franklin on July 31, 1968.” (source: Robot 6.ComicBookResources.com)
Trailblazer aside, Franklin (voiced in the film by Austin & Alley cast member Mar Mar) is also, notes the official Peanuts website, the only character to have never uttered an unkind word about Charlie Brown, a boy who knows a thing or two about what it means to be deeply unpopular and unloved.
“Charlie Brown’s good friend and confidant, and the only one who never has an unkind word about our hapless hero, or anyone else for that matter.”
Franklin has accomplished a lot in the 47 years since his debut, and so it makes perfect sense he gets his own day to shine.
It won’t be too long till the rest of the beloved Peanuts group join him when The Peanuts Movie opens in USA on 6 November 2015 and Australia on 26 December.
And here’s Harriet Glickman talking about her famous association with Charles Schulz and how their correspondence gave rise to Franklin’s introduction into Peanuts.
If you’ve ever been a recipient of Cupid’s mostly-accurate arrow, you would be among the first to admit there is rarely anything “old” or boring above love.
But the movie genre that celebrates this most delectable, transportive and logic-scrambling of life events? Ah well, that is another thing entirely.
Romantic comedies aka rom-coms have a hit-and-miss success rate when it comes to putting love in all its gloriously wonderful, messy splendour up on the big screen and Trainwreck, written by comedy “It Girl” Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, is no exception.
That it mostly succeeds in its quest to make a rom-com with a difference, hampered though it is by oddly-discordant pacing, an overly-long running time, and an all too quick “We’re in love” narrative momentum underscores just how much it does get right.
There’s no denying for a start that Amy Schumer, whose mix of raunch and stinging, insightful social commentary has made Inside Amy Schumer almost required viewing, is a consistently, very funny woman with her finger most firmly on the social zeitgeist.
She brings this comedic A-game to Trainwreck, a film that takes as its premise the idea that monogamy is not a realistic life philosophy for anyone, especially not for children of divorce like Amy and Kim Townsend (Schumer and Brie Larson respectively) whose dad’s admonitions about the perils of coupling up resonate long and hard for elder sibling Amy.
Her life is one artfully-acrobatic leap from one bed to another with the only constant men in her life, her irascible dad Gordon (Colin Quinn) and sort of, not really boyfriend Steven (John Cena) who may or may not have a preference for his own sex.
In contrast, younger sister is blissfully in love with husband Tom (Mike Birbiglia), and enjoying being step mom to his socially-awkward son Allister (Evan Brinkman).
Close in their own way, the two sisters are polar opposites when it comes to love and marriage, both reacting to their father’s bitter post-divorce advice to never fall in love – realised in an hilarious opening scene that is worth the price of admission all on its own – in entirely different ways.
This all changes of course when Amy is commissioned by her ballsy, take-no-prisoners, push the envelope editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton in great form) to write a feature piece on handsome, doctor to the sports stars Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) who she then quickly, and to her horror, then delight, the horror, then … you get the idea … falls in love with, egged by Connor’s best friend and real life basketball superstar LeBron James who plays a comedically-heightened version of himself.
It’s at this point, and for much of the film that Trainwreck does its best to balance being both the anti-rom com – it’s crude, out there and happy to rain down scorn on the tropes of the genre – and an out-and-out classic rom-com, bringing together all the tropes close and hugging them like they’re long lost Prince Charmings come a-calling with the glass slipper.
This leads, as you might expect, to a weirdly off-kilter feel to proceedings.
There are times when the film bubbles along much as you expect with an Apatow comedy – it’s worth noting this is first film the noted comedy director has made that he hasn’t also written – all raunchy, on-the-edge and punctuated by some quite intelligent observations about the human condition.
These partly take the form of quite serious conversations between Amy and her dad, with whom she is close to a point, and some moments of reasonably profound tension between Amy and Kim.
Points to Schumer and Apatow for injecting some dramatic seriousness into the plot, which is generally executed well in and of itself, but it causes Trainwreck to wobble and shudder a little till its finds its sweet-and-raunchy momentum again.
The reality is that for all its hitting of both the anti-rom-com and rom-com bullseyes – the ending particularly is as romantically and hilariously over the top as you could hope for – it does go for too long at times feeling like a series of stand-up comedy set pieces.
It makes sense when you consider that it is Schumer’s TV stock-in-trade but it doesn’t always work for the movie as a whole.
Part of that stems from the fact that it simply goes on a little too long.
Not in a “surreptitiously glance at your watch” kind of way but more in a “does that really need to be in the movie?” sense.
You have to admire Schumer’s audacity in trying to be all things to all rom-com men and women, but in the end, it results in a film that for all its appeal, is trying to wear too many creative hats at once.
That it gets away with it is largely due to it being, at heart, a very sweet, appropriately raunchy (even with the most out there lines serve a purpose), insightful film that does a nice job of navigating the intricacies of love and life in the early twenty first century.
Even with all its extra narrative baggage, it mostly succeeds thanks to Schumer’s way with comedic ad-libbing, the chemistry she enjoys with Hader, who plays the quiet, sensible, non-doormat sweet guy to perfection, some killer oneliners, and a host of supporting players, particularly LeBron James, who hit their notes every time.
In the end, and what an ending it is after a slightly mediocre third act, Trainwreck gets more right than it does wrong, which is, if you think about it, just like love itself.
You’ve got to admit that when it comes to time in the Disney sun, the Disney princesses get pretty much all the attention.
But what about the poor Disney princes?
Well fret no more for Finnish-born, Australia-resident Jirka Väätäinenhas more than made sure than the likes of Prince Eric (The Little Mermaid), Prince Charming (Cinderella), and the dreamiest of them all, at least as far as I am concerned, Prince Ali (Aladdin) won’t be pop culture wallflowers any longer.
He’s imagined what all the princes might look like if they stepped through the magical looking glass into the real world and the results are pleasing indeed.
It all sprang, Väätäinen toldCosmopolitan.com, from a lifelong love of all Disney characters (he’s also drawn the Disney princesses too):
“Having grown up with a lot of these characters, the sense of nostalgia made it such a fascinating and fun personal project to explore and carry on with.”
You can tell he’s enjoyed bringing the project to fruition with the princes looking for all the world like they could just walk right off the page.
Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) is rightly regarded as one of the master animators of the modern era.
A gifted storyteller with an enthralling ability to conjure up evocative characters and the beguiling, unique worlds they inhabit, he examines and celebrates the human condition in ways few other animators, besides Pixar, seem to manage.
It’s why people reacted with horror and sorrow when it appeared he was hanging up his animator boots for good; thankfully that’s not the case with Miyazaki working on a 10-minute short film about a hairy caterpillar that will be shown at Studio Ghibli’s museum in Tokyo.
But it does appear that the era of Miyazaki-helmed feature films may have passed, which is why this montage video by French animator Dono celebrating Miyazaki’s work is such a wonderful treat.
Covering everything from pre-Ghibli Castle of Cagliostro to his final beautifully touching work The Wind Rises, it vividly illustrates how marvelous Miyazaki’s creations are, and they fit so seamlessly together into one delightful, transportive whole.
*THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD … SPOILERS I TELL YOU! AND A BALD POPE (NO, NOT THAT ONE)*
Let’s us all agree here and now shall we that Rage Tom (Noah Wylie) would make a lousy therapist?
Possessed of the emotional tact of a phalanx of tanks rolling across a series of small defenceless villages, and the kind of empathy best exemplified by a sociopathic serial killer toying with his doomed victims, a session with Rage Tom would likely go something like this:
Rage Tom: “Yeah, like Pope (Colin Cunningham) get over it, man. Aliens invaded. Not even my aliens (who keep saying weird, mysterious sh*t and won’t show their faces). People died. People keep dying and … and … I lost Lexi. I mean that was sad, real sad …” Pope: “Yeah Mason, real sad. My heart bleeds. But um, you still have your shiny new wife and three sons who have somehow survived intact while lots of other people like Tector have died – very Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, Mason.” Rage Tom: “It’s Rage Tom Mason, Pope.”
Pope: “Whatever.” Rage Tom: “You hate everything and everyone, Pope but mostly me, and that’s not fair Pope, it’s not fair at all.” Pope: Godammit Mason, I lost Sara! The woman I loved! That I was going to make fine looking babies with! Don’t you even care?” Rage Tom: “It’s for the Greater Good, Pope … THE. GREATER. GOOD. … and … and … I lost Lexi. It’s sad, real …” Pope: “Oh shut the hell up Mason! Now I have to shave my head, threaten to kill Anne (Moon Bloodgood) and kidnap Hal (Drew Roy) then kill you … Ah, that’ll all be for the Greater Good right Mason?” Rage Tom: “Um … I lost Lexi and …”
See wouldn’t Rage Tom make a marvellous therapist?
No, no he would not.
I think we can all safely say he shouldn’t be allowed within a Mech battalion of a couch and notepad after his attempts to half-apologise to Pope for leaving Sara to be stripped of her flesh by alien bug fog – in that useless, non-sorry way that politicians are so enamoured of – simply made the situation much, much worse.
He had his reasons of course – a mission to complete what ho! Skitters and hornets to blow up, other people than Sara to save! – but the result was the same – Sara died and Pope, never the most emotionally stable of people to begin with, pretty much lost it.
And in response, Rage Tom was a total and complete insensitive jerk.
Frathouse-level, kick kittens jerk.
The worst part of it all was that it continued the trend by the show’s writers to complete strip away any of Tom’s nobler qualities.
Yes we get it – he has lots to be angry and sad about – “They killed Lexi! It was sad, real sad …” – but then so has everyone else.
And they’ve all fought back as hard as they could.
So why are the show’s creative powers that be now writing Rage Tom as an almost cruelly dismissive a**hole who cares only about getting rid of the Espheni and damn the consequences to the emotionally-rich fabric of the entire human psyche?
Espheni-free Earth ends justify the loss of people we love and the tossing aside of all that makes us wonderfully human means and all that.
It may sound all very macho and militaristic but all it’s doing is reducing the size and stature of Tom’s once-towering noble character and making us care less and less about what happens to humanity.
We should care – these people have been to alien hell and back and deserve a break – but the way they’re being written now, as insensitive, one-eyed attention-grabbing jerks, isn’t helping the care factor at all.
“Pope Breaks Bad” did have some genuinely touching or emotionally-fraught scenes – Anne taking on Pope, Rage Tom and Pope finally having it almost out in the most public of ways – one or two great action scenes (more bugs! And an Ensign Fodder!), and some more tantalising Fayetteville and Washington DC “What ifs”, but it lost the battle for our hearts and minds, a problem for a show that asks and expects us to care a lot.
It also didn’t help its cause by once again rendering the Volm as the most incompetent aliens in the galaxy.
The more we see of them and their excuses, the more obvious it becomes why they’re NOT the invaders but rather the ones running after the invaders.
Granted, Cochise (Doug Jones) almost dying did tug at the heartstrings and his shared grieving with Anne – she mourning Lexi and he his father who died giving him the organ transplant he needed to survive – was quite touching but the main thing that sprang to mind was how the Volm couldn’t seem to fight their way out of a wet envelope.
“So Cochise can you help us bomb the hell out of the Espheni?”
“Ah no, Tom Mason for my father Waschak-cha’ab has taken our spaceships away to fight battles elsewhere.”
“Oh I see then how about helping us talk to other human militias around the planet?”
“Ah again Tom Mason we cannot. Well, not straight away, and then only with a clarity that makes shortwave radio look advanced.”
“Oh well, that’s OK then how about you show off your advanced medicine and save your life?”
“Yeah no, can’t do that either. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Am I right?”
*Cochise laughs; it sounds like he’s passing a kidney stone*
“We can offer you great interior decorating tips. No, wait, we don’t have those either … gum?”
As narrative devices go, the Volm really are surplus to requirements as are Rage Tom’s new alien friends who are even managing to annoy him now with their obtuse comments and unwillingness to show their true form.
Quite whether they, and the show they are now a part of, will amount to anything with just six episodes to go, is increasingly a concern, with Falling Skies in very real danger of blowing it’s hoped-for action-packed to the dramatic finish line.
* Will things improve in next week’s “Non-Essential Personnel”? We can but hope – just pray the Volm aren’t running the TV transmission facilities or we may miss out altogether …
You might be thinking, and if you are, well congratulations you for not letting those neurons sparkly idly for no reason, that Guardians of the Galaxy, one of my favourite movies from 2014, is already plenty animated enough.
After all, save for a few touching, heartfelt scenes, one of which is close to one of the most poignant scenes I’ve seen in any movie ever (you all the know the one), it’s one gloriously, full-on, action-filled, fun romp through the galaxy with characters that come close to leaping off the screen.
That’s pretty animated!
But not it seems animated enough for the creative minds at Marvel who have come up with a cartoon take on the unexpected saviours of all we galactically hold dear – you know, like whole planets and a dearth of star-consuming dictators – that will screen on Disney XD.
As Bonnie Burton at C|Net makes clear, the cast may be different but the gang, who we are reminded are a little bad and a little bit good, are up to pretty their same old highly-watchable tricks:
“The new animated show has a different cast to the movies, with Peter Quill/Star-Lord played by Will Friedle, Rocket Raccoon by Trevor Devall, monosyllabic tree Groot by Kevin Michael Richardson (surely the easiest voice acting role ever), Gamora by Vanessa Marshall and Drax the Destroyer by David Sobolov.
The trouble-making gang discovers a strange artifact that can only be opened by Quill’s DNA. They find a treasure map leading to a weapon called the Cosmic Seed, which can create the next universe,according to IGN. Of course, being the Guardians of the Galaxy, they must prevent it from getting into the wrong hands, such as galactic gangster boss Thanos, brothers the Collector and the Grandmaster, and legendary trickster Loki.”
It looks like it has everything that made the film such an expected delight, and should tide us over nicely till the movie sequel debuts in 2017.
The series premieres in the USA on Disney XD on September 26, 2015 – there’s a sneak preview on September 5 if you can’t wait till then – with UK and Australia to follow.
Much like the music of the man it is based on, Love & Mercy is beautiful, complex, somewhat melancholy, and thought-provoking. It also teaches us some things about creative genius, innovation, and art.
One of the striking things is the substantial amount of screen time the film devotes to the recording sessions of the Beach Boy’s 1966 album Pet Sounds.
It is not controversial to say that Pet Sounds – largely Wilson’s creation – was a game-changing achievement within popular music.
Inspired by the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul (1965), Wilson’s vision was to transcend the sugary-sweet mixture of hit singles and filler material most albums aspired to at that time.
His big idea was to create a unified artistic statement across a whole album.
By portraying the Pet Sounds sessions so extensively, Love & Mercy draws attention to the process of genius, rather than the product alone.
We are given a fly-on-the-wall experience of a rarefied time and place as we witness the explosive in-studio creativity of Wilson expanding the language and traditions of popular music.
The film reveals Wilson’s delirious way of working: spontaneously composing in the studio, leaving mistakes in, encouraging experimentation in others, and continually, himself, experimenting. This way of treating the studio as an instrument would become known as “playing the studio”.
We see him sampling and orchestrating bicycle bells and a barking dog, asking whether he can bring a horse into the studio, and bullying his cellists into sounding like airplane propellers.
The accommodating but somewhat baffled studio musicians and technicians contrast with the suspicion of fellow band member and Wilson’s cousin Mike Love, (played by Jake Abel) who accuses Wilson of selfishness and egoism: “Who do you think you are, Mozart?”
In a touching moment, Los Angeles session drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) reassures the young Wilson that, not only is he blowing the minds of the conservatory-trained session musicians with his unorthodox brilliance – he is even surpassing his idol, the producer Phil Spector.
In the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson is shown to have the uncanny ability to predict certain things would “work” musically, demonstrated in the film when a musician queries his choice of chords and bass line – they seem to be in two different keys, against all logic: surely a mistake.
Wilson’s response: “it works in my head, I think it’ll be OK”.
That small moment in the film is illustrative of Wilson’s over-arching certainty of vision. When Mike Love upbraids him for selfishly pursuing his esoteric artistic ideas at the expense of commercial success, Wilson can only respond with mute silence and a bewildered facial expression – his eyes follow Love’s mouth, as if searching for clues as to what he’s talking about.
It’s as if he can’t comprehend why Love is unable to see what he can see, let alone why it is special.
Of course, while seeing what others cannot, geniuses don’t actually create something from nothing. In fact, Pet Sounds suggests Wilson was uniquely attuned to what had come before him musically, and what was happening around him.
Experimental instrumentation and orchestration (harpsichords, flutes, a theremin, dog whistles, sampled trains, a de-tuned 12-string guitar, and Coca-Cola cans – Wilson’s “pet sounds” – were certainly innovative in the context of popular music, but the Futurists had been experimenting along similar lines since at least the beginning of the 20th century.
The film also shows Wilson clambering inside the piano to attach bobby pins to the strings, in an effort to obtain a harpsichord-like rattling effect. But experimental American composer John Cage had been extensively preparing pianos with all kinds of bolts, screws, wooden and rubber objects since at least 1940 (as had Henry Cowell before that).
The experimentation wasn’t all avant-garde; the exquisitely shaped, achingly beautiful counterpoint of the coda to God Only Knows, for example, evokes the 800-year-old technique of the musical round – perhaps new in popular American music of the 20th century, but not elsewhere.
None of that diminishes the vision of Wilson, who recognised this kind of experimentation had never been attempted within the domain of popular music.
On a deeper level still is the notion of the concept album. From Wilson’s perspective, Pet Sounds is a production concept album. Mostly inspired by Phil Spector, who had been revolutionising studio production techniques and creating the famed “wall of sound”, Wilson feels that his work constitutes an interpretation of Spector’s recording methods.
But it’s also possible to see the album as a song or lyric concept album, with a general theme of romantic loss, disappointment or disillusion, although not unified by an over-arching story.
Here one must acknowledge the striking parallels with another famed musical genius: Beethoven.
To a distant beloved
There are obvious parallels between Wilson’s and Beethoven’s biographies: an abusive alcoholic father, prone to beatings and aggressive stage managing; having a degree of deafness; and a trajectory toward unkemptness of physical appearance throughout life.
But there is a much more fascinating creative parallel: they both created a new genre, essentially the same genre, now known as the Song Cycle.
Inventing the Romantic song cycle in 1816 is one of Beethoven’s less widely known achievements. His An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), Op. 98, portrays a young man in love experiencing the pain of separation from his beloved.
For the first time, a major composer had written a sequence of songs that were intended to be heard as a single, coherent statement rather than a collection (not necessarily a unified story, although that is also possible).
The idea was soon picked up and explored in a rich 19th-century efflorescence of unified song collections by Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf.
Pet Sounds can also be considered the first song cycle in popular music. And it too led to enthusiastic uptake in the output of others, most notably the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s), Van Dyke Parks (Song Cycle, 1968) and Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin On, 1971).
As with the song cycles of the past, Wilson’s gift was to be able to instantly create a strong emotional response, using text and music creatively.
On Pet Sounds, it takes “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” all of a few seconds to establish a sighing, end-of-summer haze that somehow evokes the bittersweet resignation of a couple about to leave each other (“let’s not think about tomorrow”).
The word painting – the musical depiction of the lyrics – in “God Only Knows”, on that same album, is more involved. Take just the first verse – there’s the surprising harmonic colour that accompanies the equally surprising (for a love song) entrance:
I may not always love you.
Then there’s the rather literal switch to high (falsetto) voice for the word “stars” (which are, clearly, also high).
Darker thoughts of doubt are shaded by diminished triads (highly unstable musical structures, subconsciously reinforcing the instability of “doubt”).
The harmonic uncertainty of the verse gives way to stability, clarifying itself just as the doubt of the text also resolves to “God only knows what I’d be without you”. It’s as if the music smiles at that moment.
And on it goes; somehow, this song is perfect.
The result of Wilson’s sensitivity to the music of both past and present, coupled with an eye to the future, is that Pet Sounds has a kind of depth and richness that sets it apart from anything that had come before in the world of pop.
Despite Pet Sound’s initially modest critical and commercial success, Love & Mercy shows how, in pursuing his vision, and possibly creating the first album that was intended to be listened to rather than danced to, Wilson (like Beethoven) was creating art for posterity.
Is there a downside?
Genius can be expensive. Recording Pet Sounds cost the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s terms. Even discounting the revenue it has generated over time, I would far prefer a world with an expensive Pet Sounds to one without.
Genius can also be erratic. There’s a short scene near the end of the film where Wilson begins to run aground creatively in working on the follow-up album, Smile, which was never completed in its original form.
A large group of musicians waits in silence as Wilson examines the walls, listening for something only he can hear. Apparently the end of a two-hour delay, he finally declares the vibe isn’t right, that the “space is hostile”, and cancels the session.
This expensive and erratic aspect of Wilson’s genius doesn’t fit quite so well with the modern, corporatised vision of innovation, in which efficiency constitutes a twin pillar.
And that’s where the research, the films, the discussion, and the analysis of individual parts tend to reach an impasse – the alchemy of genius is elusive, its end result greater than the sum of its parts. We know it when we see, hear, or feel it, and it’s very important to us on an emotional level.
Storytelling and melancholy
And then there’s the entire 80s portion of the film. Diagnosed with mental illness, scarred by drugs, exploited by a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti), and estranged from his family and children; Wilson’s darker years represent an extreme version of something many people can relate to – lost balance in pursuit of a vision.
In Love & Mercy, the story of a creative genius, we witness the retelling of an archetype derived from human nature. A story about unbridled and incandescent creativity and how much it can both give and take away, a tale that we can learn from over and over again.
So there is a neat overlap between artistic object and subject with this film. Because anyone who has loved a song, or a piece of music, will know that to love it is to come back to it over and over again. For many people, Pet Sounds is a trove of such treasures.
A song of genius like “Don’t Talk” can take us back in time, especially to our youth. That nostalgia for the past hurts – irretrievable except through memory, images, and sounds.
Which leads me finally to melancholy, perhaps one of music’s most underrated gifts to the world. Mike Love complains in one scene that, with Pet Sounds, “even the happy songs are sad”. That comment takes us back to the film’s prologue, where Wilson reflects on what he’s striving for in his music:
Like a cry, but sort of in a good way.
How ironic that the music we choose to listen to – that we can’t help but love – means more to us the more it hurts. Paul McCartney has described “God Only Knows” as not only one of his favourite songs, but also one that makes him tear up each time he listens to or performs it.
There’s a kind of pain that attends the experience of certain songs, they remind us that beauty’s value, (like life’s), is somehow related to its transitoriness; the song/ life metaphor is all too clear – tragically short (God Only Knows comes in at under three minutes!), but beautiful while it lasts.
So like the storytelling archetype Love & Mercy embodies, Wilson’s music is like a lesson we relearn each time we listen.
Thankfully, creating symmetry with the early Beach Boys’ prelapsarian era of Sun, Sand and Surf, there’s a happy ending to this story.
As the film makes clear, Wilson’s life became very much worth living again thanks to the entrance of Melinda Ledbetter, now his wife and manager, and he is touring the world, performing, among other things, the version of Smile he always had in mind.
If you can’t make one of Wilson’s live shows, go and see Love & Mercy, or better yet, have a listen – or 20 – to Pet Sounds.