VOD Movie Review: “Love And Mercy”

Saturday, September 12, 2015                                                   10:47 AM


I just watched “Love and Mercy” (Director: Bill Pohlad, 2014) a Brian Wilson biopic, starring Paul Dano as his ‘past self’ and John Cusack as his ‘future self’. It was beautifully made—not just the photography, which was stunning—but Atticus Ross’s musical collages, made for the soundtrack using samples from the Beach Boys’ oeuvre, had a way of (very appropriately) making Brian Wilson’s inner nightmare sound like a cyclone of Beach Boys tunes. And John’s sister, Joan, isn’t fooling anyone with her uncredited cameo as one of the back-up dancers in the scene that recreates the “Fun, Fun, Fun” televised performance—she’s only in the background for an instant, but there’s no mistaking that toothy grin.

The Beach Boys were a guilty pleasure of my youth—much like Anthony Edwards’ character in “Downtown” (Director: Richard Benjamin, 1990) who meets with disgust from Forest Whitaker’s character when he claims the Beach Boys as his ‘jam’. (It gave me inordinate pleasure to see Whitaker’s character’s ‘family’ become Beach Boys fans by the end of the film.) While the politics and social agendas of other song-writers’ lyrics of the time made many dismiss the Beach Boys as insubstantial party music, Brian Wilson’s musical genius shone through for people like me who cared more for the sound than the ‘meaning’.

Also, there is great yearning and loneliness in songs like “In My Room” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” that was audible to those of us who shared Wilson’s suffering under draconian parenting or his isolation from less-sensitive, less-artistic family and friends. So often, people condescend to Beach Boys music as fluff—while overlooking Wilson’s subtle but profound reflections of domestic abuse and teen angst—perhaps it takes a ‘fellow traveler’ to hear that subtext.

“Love and Mercy”, like other Beach Boys biopics, made my skin crawl with the depiction of his horrendous father—and then added an even creepier note to Wilson’s life by depicting his twisted therapist. Both nightmare scenarios resonate strongly for me—too strongly to enjoy the story, in spite of the incredible cinematic skill brought to this effort. But I gloried in the deconstruction of their classic hits as we are shown recreations of the production process Brian Wilson goes through, experimenting and fine-tuning every instrument, every beat—to create the overall sound that we find so familiar. I especially enjoyed the evolution of the passage that combined Theremin and cello within “Good Vibrations”—so hard core, yet so outside the box of ‘rock’—an ineluctable sound if there ever was one.

I also wanted to cheer when Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks) throws open her office door to confront the monster therapist (played with Oscar-worthy monstrosity by Paul Giamatti)—what a moment! Though difficult for me to bear, the movie was overall a tremendous experience—a true masterwork of film in many ways—and a welcome further examination of the life behind some of the twentieth century’s finest music.

Here’s a YouTube playlist that shows my ongoing struggle to mind-meld with Brian Wilson:

Have you seen my Youtube channel?


Have you seen my Youtube channel?

There are various genres of music represented–including my improvisations, which I think of as daily meditations more than musical works.

Please note that I have several Playlists that include some of my generation’s most evocative pop hits, some of my favorite classical pieces (including “Sad Class”, which is my demonstration of the theory that ‘having the blues’ can also be treated with classical music).

Musings on the Steven Kessler documentary “Paul Williams – Still Alive”


I just watched a documentary, “Paul Williams – Still Alive” (directed by Steven Kessler) on Paul Williams, a great songwriter who was catapulted into fame in the seventies, who has been 20 years sober at the time of the documentary’s filming, and who now lives a more thoughtful life but still does some touring and concertizing.

I remember Paul Williams from my younger days—mostly as a celebrity who turned up on just about any talk show or variety special you can name from that era—but I was also aware of some of his songwriting credits—his songs that were made hits by The Carpenters made me respect him as an artist, but his media-presence showed less of his musical genius and more of his desperation for attention and acceptance—and that was a big turn-off for me. (That is probably because he was doing the same sort of showboating that my own insecurity and introversion would bring out, had it been me who was famous.)


But there was (there always is) a lot of the ‘big picture’ I was unaware of. For instance, he wrote hits for Streisand (“Evergreen”), Kermit the Frog (“The Rainbow Connection”), Three Dog Night (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”), The Monkees (“Someday Man”)—well, just look him up on IMDb—he is a major thread interwoven into the Movie, TV, and Music industries of his ‘heyday’—and he won multiple Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and other awards including the Music Hall Of Fame. Look him up on their site—the list of song credits is four pages long! He is presently the President of ASCAP which, along with his touring and his family, keep him busy and happy.


But all that stuff is what I learned from Steven Kessler’s quirky documentary—what I want to talk about is what was running through my own mind while I watched it. Anything related to the Carpenters always brings to mind the tragic helplessness of Karen Carpenter trying to please the whole world and dying from it. It also reminds me of those so-relatable, heartbreaking Carpenters hits that spoke to me with, it seemed, my own voice—the voice of a lonely, yearning teenager who would have (had I been in a position to) willingly sacrificed myself in the same way, just for some intimacy or attention.


Paul Williams’ songs always had a bitter flavoring, sprinkled on top of the simplest melodies—a plurality that I always associate with that time in my life, and in entertainment history. He was too soft to be akin to the Stones or Dylan or the Who—but he was exploring the emotions the rest of us (the uncool, the unpopular) were feeling when we compared ourselves to Mick Jagger—or even to the most popular jock or cheerleader in our own schools.

There was other stuff too—iterations of the same pattern—such as being condescended to by peers who ‘knew’ what ‘real’ music was. The truth, that I was much more familiar with music in general, including Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Nationalist, Ragtime, and with the popular music of that entire first half of the twentieth century, pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles, was practically meaningless, since the ‘serious’ music officiandos and taste-arbiters of my school days discounted all of that as merely the dross that lead to the ‘real’ music of our day.


But I don’t have to dissect the teenage psyche—it was bad enough without going over it again, don’t you think? The truth is that taking a serious attitude towards anything is a mistake while in the adolescent milieu. And that was me—too serious, too oblivious, too insecure, and a teacher’s pet (the fate of all who do too well in class).

And now, forty-some years later, I finally realize that my musical influences were not The Beatles, The Monkees, Three Dog Night, etc. Those were performers—no, my real influences were the songwriters—Bob Dylan, Carol King, Neil Sedaka, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Lennon & McCartney, etc. Each music group had its own special timbre, but the music they played was very often written by someone else.


We once looked at these legendary rock bands as idealists, champions of truth and justice—or, conversely, as turncoats who had ‘sold out’ or ‘knuckled under’ to The Man. We were too young to see them simply as professional musicians and performers—we completely overlooked the fact that all these groups had contracts with major labels, managers and agents that molded their repertoire, and far more personal demons and foibles than personal crusades.

We were fundamentalists of rock n’roll, really—we ignored all the factual details and bestowed upon our rock gods a great power and knowledge that only existed in our dreams. And every advance that ‘Music’ made back then rendered the previous gods and goddesses suddenly immaterial—there were times when Dylan was too ‘old’, the Beatles were too ‘banal’. And many were the stars who shone only briefly, until the cool kids came to a consensus about their authenticity as ‘hard’ rockers, or their lack of same. Some of the artists who failed this test were among my favorites—Beach Boys, Abba, Cat Stevens, the Association, Herman’s Hermits, Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Donovan—the list is endless.


And I’ve had the cold comfort, over the years, to see many of my favorites enjoy a comeback, or a re-assessment, that in some way validated my early, uncool opinions. Some of the old groups and artists have even surfaced here and there as cult figures—Abba, Barry Manilow, the Monkees, Neil Diamond—and I, for one, am gratified that the quick dismissal of we teenagers of the 1960s-1970s was not the final word on the quality of their music—and that many, many other people still feel as strongly as I do about that early music.

Musical seriousness is something I’ve always avoided. Judgmental attitudes about the aural arts have their place, when speaking of professional musicians. They work hard enough at their field and their lives are made or unmade by their artistic choices—they have every right. But as audience members, people who take their music seriously enough to question someone else’s tastes are just being disagreeable on purpose—or so I see it, anyway. Think of the YouTube videos that show toddlers in car seats, bopping their entire bodies along with heavy metal or rap songs—how they cry when it’s turned down, and how they’re right back to bopping when the volume is restored.


To me, that is the essence of music appreciation—love whatever you love and don’t waste time disrespecting someone else’s choices. Today’s ear-buds free us from even having to share our musical tastes to hang out together. And music, good or bad, is not improved by arguing over it. In the end, I’ve come to only one problem—I love so much music, and it can only be listened to one track at a time—I’m spoiled for choice, as they say.



XperDunn Explained—As If Someone Were Asking

I’m afraid no one understands my music. I’m no musician, in the straight and narrow sense. I am an improviser.

O, I try to sight-read music, but it’s an ugly process, for the most part—its best results come when I can play a popular song and sing along—because I’m familiar with the song’s piano accompaniment and its lyrics. The main pleasure of the classical stuff is that I get to sit in the cockpit while I remember the great recordings I’ve heard, and I touch the actual keys and hear the same sound from the recordings—it’s rather like being inside of something, or being a part of it—something like that.

Nevertheless, I enjoy sight-reading as a private pleasure and I don’t see asking people to listen as a luxury I can afford. My sight-reading includes frequent dead-stops for mistakes or page-turnings. It also includes a lot of missed notes—and their deadly after-shock, the striking of the correct note. With my memory problems, only Skinnerian behavioral training takes hold—I can’t let myself play a wrong note without correction, or I’ll unwillingly play it that way forever.

So I can say, without any sense of false modesty, that my sight-reading is a pleasure only for me and any of my acquaintances lax enough to enjoy my ‘walk-throughs’ of beautiful piano works in the same sense I do, as the guts of a great recording brought to semi-life, live in the comfort of our living room.

That said, I’m of quite another mind concerning my improvising. It began as a way to play like a real musician without having to read any sheet music. As I became comfortable with a certain chord progression, a certain figure or phrase, I would become unsatisfied. I would try something new, something I wasn’t comfortable with. I would look for a new sound or rhythm and play it in different keys and at different speeds, etc. I would then go back to my comfort zone to get my ‘faux-musician’ fix—but I would play the new thing over and over until it osmosis-ed itself into my comfort playing.

Eventually, I reached a saturation point with chords, figures, and patterns—and I was forced to look at the more subtle aspects of music—melodic lines, key changes, blues chords, rock chords, base-line and so on. And over forty years of this, my piano improvisations have become more versatile, more under control of my extrapolated intentions, and slightly more subtle. However, it still isn’t music in the normal sense.

First of all, the beginning is always the worst part—if a listener has little patience, he or she will never enjoy my improvs. I can’t just explode into a full-blown improvisation—by their nature, they must be approached gently.

I will often doodle on the keys, stretching and cycling a musical phrase or type of chord—and allowing myself to start and stop, to go back over something I liked, that went by too fast. It’s all a horrible travesty of ‘normal’ musical performance, but it is the only way to get from a purposely-blanked mind, sitting on the piano-bench, and touching a first keyboard key at random—to a temporal flowing of the wrestling match with the twelve tones as represented by the keys of the piano, and the soul of the wrestler. Like water-fowl, I start off ugly and have to get well aloft before I can be relaxed and graceful.

Unfortunately, while such aimless scattershot is flying everywhere at the start, it never really dies off completely—the rhythm can still change drastically and even stop completely. Plus, there can be a lot of comfort-music repetition hiding the good parts (if any) inside a long-drawn-out exercise of musical ‘Om-chanting’.

Here is my rational: music is sometimes expected to ‘drill through’ ambient noise—the subtleties of the concert hall experience of a century ago are rare and usually private at present.  Pop music is meant to accompany dancing, or fun of other sorts. Clubs will require people to shout into each other’s ears to communicate over the din of, say, metal, or rap. Car radios, too, have always added aural challenges to music-lovers.

My personal un-favorite is the classical-channel broadcasting a lush, luxurious piece of paradise-soundtrack but is cut-off every few minutes by a short cross-transmission of a seedy, made-for-the-ignorant preacher program. The vile slatherings of this Babylonian Whore of Rationalization-in-the-name-of-Faith come loud and clear, just a second or two—but just enough to get his current, fear-mongering, money-grubbing  gist—and then back to the beautiful, beautiful music. That is my own personal hell.

But cable-TV viewers have seen the 21st-century version of this maddening techno-glitch—the screen that freezes into a blur of pixels, with no sound, for ten or twenty seconds during the best part of the movie, right at the end—and it’s fifty-fifty whether it will let you off with a few final lines unheard or it will light your main fuse by turning to black and staying that way. Turning black is the only indication one ever gets of a cable-feed break—there is also the ‘channel temporarily unavailable’ screen, but that only prevents one from starting to watch a movie and is, therefore, lower on the fuse-lighting scale.

These beat my old ‘radio days’ peeves by an order of magnitude—they come right into your home; they don’t just stalk you on a driving trip. And, these feed-breaks disappoint so much more, when the whole audio/video/storyline gets yanked from under ones feet—it’s almost painful.

Smaller blips, like an actor’s voice doing a ‘digital-strobing’ for a moment, whenever his or her voice hits a particular register—or the pixel ghosting that sometimes leaves brief, pixelated trails of the outlines of the moving objects on the screen. I think of this type of glitch as a ‘cable brown-out’, which means watchable but not reliable.

Ordinarily, these failures and frustrations are few, and have little impact on news-channels and TV shows. But I find them unacceptable when the subject is musical performance. Those little bleeps and blops don’t matter a bit, until they are interrupting a Tchaikovsky ballet, a Beethoven symphony, or a Verdi opera. And while such randomization ‘fits in’ better with pop music, it can still ruin a classic rock or blues concert.

So, I see watching music on TV as a sorry substitute for either a good recording or a live concert. The camera-folks often lack the knowledge to anticipate the soloists in an orchestra—and generally overdo their camera work, otherwise. It makes no sense to render the video more franticly than the musicians are playing their music! I also find that filming the orchestra is arguably the least interesting video with which to accompany the performance—haven’t these people ever seen a music video?

As for iPods, there is the hopeless choice of higher fidelity versus greater storage space when choosing the quality of the uploaded mp3s & -4s. In many ways, we have gone far beyond the traditional ‘spoiler’ with a bad cough who sits obliviously in the front row, competing in volume with the performers. We can anticipate a wide variety of interruptions, glitches, and aural-strobing in the course of our digital-music-scored days.

This being the case, I have decided that my piano improvs can afford to be imperfect in musicality, so long as they have a strong dose of self-expression. Pop music is what it is—if people ever get past that and start listening to some more fragile experiences, such as Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations—for instance, they may decide they’d like to hear someone’s musical meditations that are more about the person playing the music, and sound itself, and would be a modern-day equivalent to the ‘stillness’ of good Classical pieces.

I’ve noticed when listening to playbacks of my improvs that the apparent speed at which I felt I was playing seemed much faster than the actual speed I later heard on the recording. This is due to the busy little machinations of a mind attempting to do something complicated in real time, and at a steady rhythm, that involves all ten fingers and a hopefully creative mind.

In those moments, one feels a rushing along of all the motions and choices and anticipations which, in the ear of a leisurely listener, are simply plinks on a piano, proceeding at a less-than-breathtaking tempo. I’ve been frequently disappointed by lack of the frisson I’d anticipated. But this is not normal music—and any attempt to enjoy it requires a generosity of standard that includes my mental process (and physical limitations) as parts of the show.

One of the easiest ways for me to ‘show’ this to listeners is to produce a YouTube video that runs 50%—100% times faster than the original. This sped-up recording highlights the phrasing and rhythm, while minimizing the various imperfections of my playing—it sounds almost as good as it did in my head when I played it. I fear I will always feel some disappointment when comparing the experience of improvising with the play-back listening experience afterward!

In other words, only by listening very closely and non-judgmentally can I enjoy my recordings—and I assume the same is true for anyone else who cares to try. Sometimes, when I miss the beat, or slur a note, I think it sounds good that way. Am I just making excuses for ‘bad’ music—yes, in one sense I am. But I wouldn’t bother going through all this explaining if had never gotten any pleasure from hearing my own music.

As mentioned above, I get a lot of pleasure out of playing the piano, mostly due to my refusal to criticize myself in the context of a musical performer. The physical and emotional pleasures are only part of the satisfaction. Think of it—how many of you (Glasers, Wainwrights, and Marshalls excluded) have your own music, your own sound? Mine is not a very good one, but it is a nice thing to have. My family and close friends could recognize me from around corners, if I’m in a room with a piano—that’s kinda cool, isn’t it?

Yes, I can well imagine what you’re thinking—it’s all very marginal and self-indulgent, isn’t it? Vanity music, I dare say. I don’t expect anyone to read this and suddenly be convinced I’m some kind of artiste. I’m just saying some of my stuff isn’t bad and some people like it and I get something important out of doing it and sharing it. So I’m really writing this in the unlikely case that you wondered why I bother.

Then there are the applied uses—for reading, rocking a baby, writing a term-paper, going to sleep and other, similar activities, my music is the least intrusive way to break the silence. Other music is more striking, it almost demands to be heard, and can be distracting. My music almost resists being listened to, which can come in handy at times when there would otherwise be a deafening silence.

One of my biggest flaws is the single sound I’ve always used. I think that some of my improvs, had I been able to capture the MIDI musical notation, would make for some interesting experiments in music producing, orchestration, and, of course, the recreation of the piece in a steady rhythm, as I would have played them if I could. Then I could just tell my PC to play it back, even using different sounds from a synthesizer, or leaving it as piano! I would love to do that.

Because I believe that some of my improvs were close calls that, had I not been rushed, would have been some pretty nice tunes. I could have written a few songs, given some of my better, passing ideas a permanent home on paper… stuff like that. To attempt to work in music without the physical ability to properly keep time is a very limited arena—some would term it idiotic, I’m sure. But I go where I’m lead. What choice do I have?