SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION
directed by Ethan Hawke
LOVE & MERCY
directed by Bill Pohlad
written and directed by Damien Chazelle
by Bill Chambers Ethan Hawke's first documentary isn't the affected thing its Googler-confusing, appropriated-from-Salinger title would suggest. (And perhaps we should be grateful he didn't go with Suddenly Seymour, Seymour Butts, or I Know What You Did Last Seymour.) Intimate but not prying, Seymour: An Introduction profiles the homuncular Seymour Bernstein, a former pianist of some renown who withdrew from the concert circuit in his prime to focus on teaching piano, hoping to stave off the neuroses of fame. Hawke decided to make the film after receiving some life-altering advice from Bernstein at a gathering, as if compelled to share his good fortune with the world, and that generosity of spirit courses through a piece that looks for wisdom, not pathology, in its subject's hermetic existence (57 years alone in the same New York apartment) and monk-like devotion to music. A forgotten genius, Bernstein also proves an unsung raconteur in enthralling stories that place him at the centre of a real-life Sunset Boulevard or on the front lines of Korea; he commands the screen in lingering close-ups and holds court with equally-captive audiences of confrères and disciples, despite his professed stage fright. The picture builds to Bernstein's first live performance in decades, a recital Hawke has arranged in a gesture that seems like a betrayal yet has the not-undesirable effect of making Bernstein look oddly heroic. If possible, he's an even more expressive individual when filtered through the keys of a Steinway.
Seymour Bernstein is an eccentric but not like Brian Wilson, who finally gets the biopic treatment with Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy. Interweaving the beginning and the end of what we might call Wilson's lost years, the film casts an uncanny Paul Dano as the Wilson of the '60s, disappearing down rabbit holes of creative and pharmaceutical experimentation, and John Cusack as his '80s counterpart, over-medicated and yoked to his physician, Dr. Eugene Landy (a hotheaded Paul Giamatti), a Col. Tom Parker type who's capitalized on Wilson's fragile mental state to insinuate himself in the Beach Boys singer's business affairs. Despite the dual-casting, alternating timelines, and idiosyncratic attempts to get inside Wilson's head (sometimes literally, with Blue Velvet-esque trips into the ear), this is a fairly conventional biopic that ends with a postscript vindication of Wilson's trailblazing and a closing-credits appearance by the real Wilson of today to sate any ghoulish curiosity. Love & Mercy is also unfortunately plagued by the spectre of Walk Hard, which not only ruthlessly identifies it as another entry in a rigidly paradigmatic genre but also premonitorily sends up the scenes of Wilson piecing together an eclectic orchestra to record "Good Vibrations." Cusack is morbidly unconvincing as a slow, harmless giant, though his miscasting gives Elizabeth Banks--playing the car saleswoman who would become Wilson's guardian angel and later, offscreen, his wife--something approximately as peculiar as Wilson to respond to; she's a revelation here, conveying great strength without stooping to bravado. As an aside, I resented the movie's use of “Wouldn't It Be Nice”--over the final fade-out, no less: Wilson's entitlement to it or not, that song now and forever belongs to the ending of Shampoo.
Seymour: An Introduction, Love & Mercy, and the third film about a musician I saw at this year's TIFF, Damien Chazelle's Sundance victor Whiplash, couldn't be more different in terms of aesthetics and approach, but each acknowledges in its own way the ugly truth that talent is cheap and practice makes perfect. Seymour talking-head Joseph Smith says that to admit an art is also a craft bettered through rehearsal is considered unAmerican, while Wilson's tyrannical patriarch (Bill Camp) sells the rights to The Beach Boys' catalogue out from under Brian as if to verify the emasculating effects of obsessively pursuing your muse. In Whiplash, however, the notion of honing one's gifts couldn't be more red-blooded or masculine, as it conflates music conservatories with military school, where students are taunted with homophobic slurs if they don't play until their hands bleed. At least that's true of drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), who endures mind games and other abuse from the instructor (JK Simmons, in fine form) he's working tirelessly to please, a legendary jazz-man fond of telling and re-enacting the story of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker's head. Whiplash is defiantly devoted to process and no less captivating for it, yet in the days since my rousing screening of the film I've grown increasingly mystified by its positivity towards bullying, not just as a teaching method but as a way of fostering an environment that somehow isn't antithetical to jazz. Chazelle's direction is crisp but he has to watch shots like the one of Teller's drum-kit implements laid out in the manner of surgical instruments, which pave the road to future hackery. Programmes: TIFF Docs (Seymour: An Introduction); Special Presentations (Love & Mercy, Whiplash)