Heroes & Villains

Author: Michael A. M. Lerner
Genre: Biography/Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 8
Writer’s Potential: 7

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Logline:

After suffering a nervous breakdown, pop star Brian Wilson undergoes a radical psychotherapy treatment.

Synopsis:

A montage introduces us to the early career of Beach Boys founder/bandleader/songwriter/producer BRIAN WILSON. In the late-’70s, a late-30s Brian’s a disheveled mess. He shows up to daughter CARNIE’s birthday party, to the disappointment of ex-wife MARILYN and his own nurse, DORIS. Brian neglects everything as the sounds around him transform into music, but after humiliating himself simply by being there, Doris drags him out. She drives me to a law office, where Brian is confronted by brother/bandmate CARL, cousin/bandmate MIKE LOVE, bandmate AL JARDINE, and manager LARRY SCHIFF. They’ve fired him from the band and petitioned the court to take his publishing royalties.

That night, Brian tries to write a song, but the voices in his head drive him to distraction. He tries to hit up Doris’s young children for money, then drives a cab around L.A., bumming money from friends. He goes to visit brother/bandmate DENNIS on his beloved yacht, and Dennis immediately hops in the cab and drags Brian to the Troubadour. At the Troubadour, the LEAD SINGER of the band onstage notices Brian and Dennis walk in, and he points out his admiration for Brian. This cause him to freeze up. In fear, he accidentally knocks over a table. The audience laughs, the voices in his head roar, Brian runs away from the Troubadour and collapses in the street. He’s nearly hit by a car. An MTV News clip shows KURT LODER describing Brian’s latest breakdown, along with words of admiration from ELVIS COSTELLO and TOM PETTY.

At the hospital, Carl, Dennis, and Doris gather with AUDREY, the Wilson boys’ mother. DR. EUGENE LANDY, early 40s, shows up. He once treated Brian but was fired by the band. He badgers the family into letting him take care of Brian once again — but only if he can have 24-hour access and move Brian away from the drugs, alcohol, and distractions of his life. When they reluctantly agree, Landy gets Brian on a gurney, drags him to an ambulance, put him on a plane, and take him to a house in Hawaii. Landy awakens Brian the next morning, offers him breakfast. He gets him in a minivan, where Landy’s girlfriend, DIANDRA, is waiting. They drive him along a dirt road to the bottom of a mountain and abandon him, telling him to walk back up the mountain to the house.

Brian barely manages to reach the house. He continues to struggle with visual and auditory hallucinations. When Brian wakes up, Landy’s there, waiting. Brian confesses he doesn’t want to go back to the “loony hospital.” Landy tells Brian that if he works with him, puts his complete trust into him, Landy will help Brian manage his disorders and become a functional part of society — and Brian will never have to go back to the loony hospital again. A montage shows Brian repeatedly going up the mountain road — struggling but getting stronger, until he’s able to reach the top without any trouble.

Diandra complains about Brian’s ripe smell. Brian tells Landy he’s afraid of the shower, because he’s hallucinated snakes coming out of the shower head. Unafraid, Landy gets into the shower, fully clothed, and turns it on. He takes Brian’s hand and lets the water run under it. Encouraged, Brian’s able to get in the shower. Brian hears his song “Surf’s Up” in his head, and it provokes a flashback to 1966. Sitting with lyricist/folk musician VAN DYKE PARKS, he continues to play the song. Van tries to encourage Brian to release his newest song, Smile, as a solo album — Van fears the other Boys won’t “dig” the new, less commercial style. Brian doesn’t agree.

In the late ’70s, Brian cleans a glass obsessively. Landy asks him why he’s doing that. Brian doesn’t know, but Landy badgers him until Brian tells him about an incident with his father in 1956. In flashback, MURRY (Brian’s father) listens to 14-year-old Brian’s jazzy, beautiful music. Brian says he doesn’t know where to take the song, so Murry tries to help by playing some schmaltzy, old-fashioned music. Brian laughs. Murry notices a glass on top of the piano. He picks it up, and it leaves a sticky ring. He flies off the handle, whacking Brian several times, until Brian slams his head against the piano bench, leaving him permanently deaf in one ear.

Back in the late ’70s, movers show up with a piano. Landy keeps it locked until Brian explains to Landy how he comes up with a song. Brian tries to explain with another flashback, this time to 1965, showing him attempt to put two dissonant harmonies together. His musicians don’t think the music will work, but when the entire orchestra plays it, it sounds beautiful. In the ’70s, Brian says he just hears it all in his head, linked together. Landy’s baffled. Some time later, Diandra tells Landy that the Beach Boys are playing in Hawaii. She also shows Landy and Brian some press clippings, suggesting Landy has kidnapped Brian. They dress Brian up in a suit and coach him on what to say regarding this. Brian shows up at a press conference with the other Beach Boys, where he addresses the allegations with good humor.

Seeing him in such good health, Carl Mike, and Dennis encourage Brian to return to the Beach Boys. Landy refuses to let him. Marilyn shows up with Carnie, but Brian humiliates himself with a faux pas about Carnie’s size. Landy takes Brian back to Los Angeles, where he’s rented him a huge house in Malibu and hired two personal assistants, BRICE and JOSH. Landy says that now that he’s in peak physical condition, they need to continue working on his mental condition. At a supermarket, Brian flirts with a cute checkout girl (MELINDA LEDBETTER). He takes 25 pills a day, strictly monitored by Brice and Josh. He jogs along the Pacific Coast Highway. Landy forces Brian to start writing music again, with Landy as the lyricist. They take the songs to the other Beach Boys, who think the music is serviceable but the lyrics are trash. Enraged, Landy decides it’s time for Brian to put together a solo album — and to celebrate this monumental occasion, he takes Brian to a Cadillac dealer to buy a car. Brian finds Melinda working there now. He tells her he’ll buy the car she likes best. He flirts with her, and she flirts back. Landy barges in and takes Brian away.

At a café, Dennis spots Brian jogging up the PCH. He calls to him and they catch up on old times. Dennis says he’s tried calling a lot, but Brian never got the messages. He encourages Brian to ask out Melinda. They talk about solo albums, and Brian hypes up Landy’s affiliations in the industry, saying he produced Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” Dennis laughs and corrects Brian — Landy had nothing to do with it. Brian’s confused. Dennis drives Brian home, and Landy is livid. He verbally abuses Brian, and when Dennis shows up at Brian’s house the next day, Landy and Brice won’t let him in. He goes away, dejected. Brian remembers the early days of the Beach Boys, with Mike accusing Dennis of not being able to play the drums. Brian encourages Dennis and helps him get the beat.

In the present timeline, Brian gets a phone call: Dennis is dead. Drunk, he dove off his yacht and drowned. Brian locks himself in his bedroom, listening to his song “‘Til I Die” on an endless loop. Gaunt and unenthusiastic, Landy takes complete control of the solo album. The engineer gets into a fight with him and quits. Brice gives Brian tickets to a Moody Blues concert. Brian works up his courage and calls Melinda. He asks her to go to the concert; she agrees. Landy passive-aggressively tries to discourage Brian from going on a date with her, but Brian won’t relent. He takes her to the concert. Landy sends Josh to spy on them, so Melinda takes her backstage. After, Brian takes Melinda back home. He leaves, awkwardly, then taps on the window of her apartment. He asks her to go to a barbecue he’s throwing. She agrees.

At the barbecue, Melinda notices that everyone there is one of Landy’s friends — she’s Brian’s only friend there. Brian shows her where he writes songs, says he doesn’t write much anymore. She asks why, and he explains — accompanied by flashbacks — the race to beat the Beatles in terms of increasingly ambitious songwriting and production techniques. The Beatles put out Rubber Soul, which encouraged Brian to make Pet Sounds, then they came back with Revolver, he released “Good Vibrations,” and then the Beatles trumped it all with Sgt. Pepper’s. Brian tried to make Smile to outdo them one last time, but the Boys hated the songs — except Dennis. The family rejection gave him a nervous breakdown and couldn’t finish.

Landy disrupts Brian and Melinda, then sends her home. After that, Brice and Josh begin screening the calls and not giving the messages from Melinda. She drops by the house and catches him while he’s jogging — the only time he’s allowed to leave the house. Brian asks her out again, but Landy is livid because he’s booked recording sessions. Landy rants and raves at the assistants, whom he hired to watch Brian’s every move. After hearing that, Brian starts hiding his medication instead of taking it. He takes Melinda horseracing, then on a boat trip. Annoyed by Josh monitoring them, he convinces Melinda to dive off the boat. They swim to shore and make love. When Brian gets back home, Landy confronts him with the untaken pills he’s found. He says he’s shocked and disappointed. Landy goes to Melinda and tries to manipulate her into going away, because she’s causing too much stress on Brian. Landy forces Brian to go to a lawyer to sign some mysterious papers. At the recording studio, Brian sneaks away to call Melinda to meet him there. He says Landy drugged him up and made him sign legal papers, but he doesn’t know what they are. Brice calls Landy about Melinda, and Landy races to the studio to threaten her. She ignores him.

Some time later, Melinda sees a newspaper with a headline about Landy — PSYCHIATRIST INVESTIGATED BY HEALTH BOARD. Melinda goes to meet Brian for a date, but Brice won’t let her in. Landy tells Brian she called to cancel, but Brian doesn’t believe him. Landy doesn’t know why Brian thinks he would lie, but Brian reminds him of “Eve of Destruction.” Brian shoves him, but a frightened Landy says he has power of attorney over Brian. While Landy’s distracted, Brian steals the documents from Landy’s briefcase. When they send him jogging, he goes all the way from Malibu to Santa Monica. He goes to Melinda, who’s baffled. She wants to help but they can only get the ball rolling with the help of the family. Carl and his attorney take their petition against Landy to the state’s attorney general.

Landy goes to confront Melinda, but when he approaches her at the Cadillac dealership, court servers serve him with papers. Landy and Diandra are forced to move out of Brian’s house.

In 2003, Brian and Melinda are married and have three young children. He’s patched things up with his older children — they’re a big, happy, accepting family. One night, Brian starts playing “Heroes and Villains” and decides it’s finally time to finish Smile. With the help of DARIAN SAHANAJA and a computer, Brian goes through the old Smile tracks and strings it all together as an album. They rehearse it, but Brian has another breakdown. Melinda tries to console Brian and tells him he doesn’t have to do this, but Brian insists that he does. Smile debuts live in London to rave reviews, as does the subsequent album.

Comments:

One of the biggest problems facing biopics is the monumental task of paring down a person’s lifetime into a single cinematic story. By starting the story with Eugene Landy’s deep, experimental, live-in psychotherapy — spanning roughly 1978 through the mid-’90s — the writer concentrates a story that not many people know much about. He also does a very skillful job of portraying everyone as humans, instead of larger-than-life pop-culture icons. More than that, his handling of Eugene Landy as a character is expert — at first portraying him as the confident, compassionate therapist whose radical methods work wonders, then peeling back the layers to show him as an unpleasant thug exploiting Brian’s mental illness. He also does a nice job of paralleling him to Murry, Brian’s father. The writer skillfully handles Brian’s hallucinations in illustrating how his mental problems may have helped him to create music.

Although he does a nice job with the love story, the writer falters in the third act. The entire Smile bit, true and triumphant though it may be, feels tacked -n for this particular story. Brian’s found new love and divorced himself from yet another manipulator — now he can pick up the pieces. But the story just keeps going after that. I like the idea that the writer narrowed the scope to this specific, difficult time in Brian’s life, but if he’s going to widen the scope to include the Smile resurrection, he should also broaden it to go into more depth on the original recording sessions. For something that cast such a pall over Brian’s life, relegating it to a few pages of narration over a flashback might not be the best choice. Also, Brian’s narration is one of the few examples where the writer slips into flagrantly expository dialogue. He vividly captures the nuance of Brian’s speech patterns elsewhere, but the narration in this section reads like a press release.

Despite these flaws, the writer has written a dense script packed with complex characters true to their real-life counterparts. Even though he sometimes plays loose with the facts and the timeline (as any biopic does), the hopeful story of this time in Brian Wilson’s life is true enough and well-written enough to make a compelling film.

This will undoubtedly appeal to fans of classic rock and will likely have a broad international appeal (considering Brian Wilson’s music is, at this point, probably more popular in Europe and Southeast Asia than it is in the U.S.). With the right cast and crew, this could turn into a big prestige picture (à la Ray or Walk the Line).

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 3, 2008 5:47 PM