2015 Film, Film

Love & Mercy–not your typical biopic

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I have seen and loved “typical” biopics. You know—that formula that takes us on quite the ride of the life and loves and losses of an individual, spanning decades. The short montage that represents the years passing just so the movie can settle into the new, exciting time period during which “more stuff happens.” I’ve often found those to be cheesy. Why not just cut to the next scene and put the year on the screen? But then there are the biopics that do focus on a specific time in an individual’s life (not decades) but are still “typical” in their formula, often (as the first case is also often accused of) in order to become “Oscar Bait.” Just like with their counterparts of wider scope, the pacing, the dramatic scenes that focus on incidents that tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers, and, of course, the choice to leave out certain incidents that wouldn’t “play into the narrative” that moviegoers have been sold are all elements.

When I walked out of Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, wri. Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner), based on the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, my first thought, after I’d just seen (and liked, actually) a biopic that was, in fact, formulaic, my first thought was that this was not your typical biopic and is worth watching for that and for the pacing, the performances, the incidents, and all of those choices made, but because they are not formulaic or what you’d normally see.

LOVE AND MERCY - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks - Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.

LOVE AND MERCY – 2015 FILM STILL – Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks – Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.

There is a montage, but it is so well done that I, in the best possible way, did not know what had hit me. I will not reveal the way it is put together, but it takes place at such a height of emotion and showcases how excellently Paul Dano and John Cusack share the role of Wilson. The way the film treats time is one of its main strengths. Dano displays his talents as his character is caught in the conflict between commercial success and true artistic fulfillment, which, as it mostly always does, involves pressure from others to favor the former. Cusack shows us the toll years of unbearable pressure, work, and mental illness can take when there is no help available and there are people around taking advantage of you. Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy) is terrifying as one of those people (and he does it so so well—he can do anything).

In my book, the standout performance comes from Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda Ledbetter, who meets John Cusack in a car dealership. She is a character in her own right and has a life and a history. Banks very impressively carries all of that and brings weight to the role as a woman who is adding to her life unpredictably bizarre situations and manages to achieve what no one else is ever able to achieve.

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2015 Film, Documentary, Film, Television

What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”


“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.

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When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.

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2015 Film, Film

I’ll See You in My Dreams (to be “aware both of the attraction of an imaginative dream world without ‘disagreeables’ and the remorseless pressure of the actual”)

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John Keats may have died at 25, but he was able to articulate the feelings of mortality better than anyone. What urged him on in his poetic career was the foreboding he felt about life ending too soon. In order to achieve what he believed to be the true poetic task, he allowed himself to feel intensely, including the opposite emotion present in every feeling—for example, the “melancholy in delight” and the “pleasure in pain.” (See also the subtitle of this post). I turned to my Norton Anthology’s biography of John Keats because the same sentiments came to me a few days after I saw I’ll See You in My Dreams.

I enjoyed the film because of the main character, Carol Petersen (the wonderful Blythe Danner), with her unapologetic attitude and cozy if not monotonous (but classy) routine. She is a widow in her 70s who has friends (Yes!–June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place) who themselves want to continue to live active lives. They encourage her to do the same, which means entering into the dating scene (Sam Elliott). Carol is reluctant because that has not fit into her lifestyle for quite some time. I also enjoyed the film for its (what I call) realistic treatment of a person’s life. The film, directed by Brett Haley and written by Haley and Marc Basch, has the tagline “Life Goes On. Go With It.” To me the film is about the difficulty of taking that advice. The difficulty comes as the result of many circumstances. Age and one’s capacity (willingly or unwillingly) to experience the sadness in joy or the fear in exhilaration are two of those.

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Danner and Haley

How we allow ourselves to have (or not have) experiences, which is usually a reaction to what we have been through in our lives, has a major impact on the choices we make. For people who do desire romantic love or companionship, the prospect of being alone for the rest of their lives (although the word “alone” does sound strong, people use it) seems to be felt more keenly with age because we tend to look back at the amount of time we’ve been in a certain situation. Still, others are new to the experience because they’ve either just decided that they would like a long-term relationship or one has just ended after a long time. I’ll See You in My Dreams gives us insights into these questions, and it certainly lets us know that life does not end because we reach a certain age. Also, through a key relationship (Martin Starr), there is something else I love in film—the mixture of youth and experience. Despite all of the discouragement I carry when I think about my future, when I think of this film I think of possibilities—no guarantees, but of what could happen.


“I loved my feet on the boards” -Blythe Danner talks about her love of theatre acting, among other things, in this interview (also below) from DP/30.

“That’s what a good script will get for you—a good cast.” -Mary Kay Place. This is a must-see! I’ll See You in My Dreams DP/30 interview with Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and June Squibb!

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