The never-ending flow of information on any given subject that can be found on the internet has rendered one of the most venerable movie genres – the biopic, as well as its real-life counterpart, the biographical documentary – more than a bit obsolete. If you want to read up on a particular individual – like Brian Wilson, who is the subject of director Bill Pohlad and writer Oren Moverman’s “Love and Mercy” (Sony) – there are acres of essays, reviews, biographies, interviews and even hours of studio chatter and rehearsals from which one can draw a dozen different conclusions about Wilson’s life and achievements. Pohlad and Moverman attempt to counter the mono focus of the biopic by dividing their subject’s life into two parts: the younger Wilson (played by Paul Dano) at the height of his creative powers, as he conceives “Pet Sounds” with the Beach Boys, and the post crash-and-burn Wilson (John Cusack) in the early 1980s, freed of his addictions but in the grip of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and his 24-hour care, which looks more like imprisonment. It’s an effective conceit, since the Wilson that emerged from decades of drug use and mental illness seemed a different creature from the boyish ‘60s incarnation portrayed by Dano (and to that point: much of the criticism leveled at “Mercy” seems to hinge on Cusack’s lack of resemblance to the elder Wilson, but if you ask me, the stretched skin and bad dye job on Cusack, as well as his whispery, distracted demeanor, seem a lot like the spectral figure glimpsed in uncomfortable interviews from the period).
The two-actor approach (similar to the multiple personas embodying Bob Dylan in Moverman’s “I’m Not There”) is also effective in carrying the tons of cultural and emotional freight involved in telling Wilson’s story. The picture encompasses not only his journey from Point A as pop genius to his terminal Point Z with Landy, but also everything in between: his battles with Mike Love and his monstrous father, Murry, his headlong dive into drugs, the hard-fought relationship with eventual second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and the day-to-day struggle of contending with all of that history and tragedy in one’s head. Like the recent James Brown biopic “Get Up,” “Love and Mercy” is more effective at explaining why Wilson earned the genius sobriquet – the “Pet Sounds” sessions, as well as the conception of “Good Vibrations” and the crash of “Smile,” are recreated with tremendous energy – than it is at detailing Wilson’s personal life, which boils down to simple good-vs.-bad conflict (Melinda Good, Landy Bad, Brian Sad), despite fine work from Banks and Giamatti. The interplay between those three figures – and Carl Wilson, who is largely excluded from the story – was far more complicated that the film lets on, and in streamlining the complexities of their relationship, Pohlad and Moverman also pare down the love and mercy at the picture’s core to network TV-movie level, which will undoubtedly disappoint Beach Boys and Wilson devotees (who might also take issue with the liberties taken in the production scenes, such as reducing Van Dyke Parks and Tony Asher to glorified extras). Still, for those not overly familiar with Wilson’s story, the performances of Cusack, Banks, Giamatti and especially Dano, who not only captures to eerie effect the awkward physicality and sweetness of the younger Wilson, but also pulls off remarkable vocal renditions of numerous songs, make for an engaging watch.
Like “Love and Mercy,” the long-out-of-circulation “American Dreamer” tries to reconcile the facts and the myths behind another pop culture legend, Dennis Hopper. Directed by photojournalist Lawrence Schiller and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (“Paris, Texas”) in 1970, the film captures the actor-turned-auteur at a critical impasse in his career: still flush from the unexpected success of “Easy Rider,” Hopper has begun work on his long-gestating dream project, a sort of meta-Western called “The Last Movie” (1971), which he envisions as the opening salvo in the coming cinematic revolution. As befitting Hopper’s self-appointed status as Shiva-the-Destroyer of Old Hollywood, Schiller and Carson deconstruct the traditional documentary model by allowing Hopper to craft his own image in the film. Unfortunately, what Hopper chooses to show is a bearded (Manson-esque) holy man/wild man who seeks artistic council in a director whose vision is even more unhinged than his (“El Topo’s” Alejandro Jodorowsky) and whose outside interests appear to be drugs, orgies and high-powered rifles. The result, we can surmise, is a sort of inverted success for the filmmakers, in that they have succeeded in presenting their own image of Hopper, but the image is so unpleasant and out-of-control that it upends any sense of Hopper’s genius. Hopper himself would fulfill that vision through self-imposed exile and decades of addiction after the failure of “The Last Movie”; “American Dreamer” would also disappear for decades after its run on college campuses, but has returned in remastered form (from Schiller’s own print) from Etiquette Pictures. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes extensively researched liner notes on the history of the campus film circuit by historian Chris Poggiali.
There is a touch of both Brian Wilson and Dennis Hopper in Iris Apfel, the 93-year-old subject of director Albert Maysles’ penultimate documentary, “Iris” (Magnolia Home Entertainment). Like both men, Apfel has a particular vision, and one that stands apart from the accepted norms of her particular industry, which is fashion. The success of a textile firm and interior design company she ran with her beloved husband, Carl, allowed her the financial latitude to collect clothing and other items which captured her unique sensibilities. The unifying theme of the collection seems to be eruptions of color and design and what might be described as kitsch (Disney characters, bangles, buckskin fringe), but mostly, it appears to be whatever pleased Apfel. And it’s that singularity of vision that has earned her a place of respect within the fashion world, with museums exhibiting her collection and department stores adopting her style for window displays. Maysles, who died this past March, and whose c.v. with his brother David and other filmmakers includes such high water marks of the documentary as “Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Salesman,” employs his typically unobtrusive and fragmentary style to provide as unfettered a portrait of Apfel as possible, and what we get is a very affecting meditation on the pain and joy of being a maverick. Like Brian Wilson, Apfel’s work is well-loved, but her presence is not always provided with much respect: we hear praise from figures like Bruce Weber, but see her all but ignored by the much-younger women at a department store who want to mock up mannequins with replicas of Apfel’s Swifty Lazar-sized glasses. There’s a lot on Apfel’s plate, including the declining health of her centenarian husband, but to her credit, she finds strength in her convictions, even as they reduce her in the eyes of her supposed admirers; pretty, as she was told in less-than-charitable terms a long time ago, is fleeting, but strength and focus is enduring. One imagines that both Wilson and Hopper, at their various crossroads, might’ve wanted to hear that.