Two remarkable biographies premiered on the screens of SXSW this year. The Last Man on the Moon, a documentary, took us to the moon and back with Astronaut Gene Cernan. Love & Mercy, a narrative film, brought us into the intimate corners of the life of The Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson.
The Last Man on the Moon is the first feature from London based director Mark Craig. Craig’s previous work included motion graphics design for the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK and, since 1996, a diverse range of television programming with an emphasis on documentaries.
I think his previous work gave him a step up in creating a film which is a fascinating visual trip through Cernan’s life. In any documentary there is always the trap of ending up with a series of shots of talking heads. Not only did Craig avoid this, he created a film that should be studied by all documentary film students.
Cernan’s life is told through historical footage, old photographs, visits to museums, 8mm family films, news broadcasts and, in one clever sequence, animation. Somehow he obtained footage, such as aircraft crashing on aircraft carriers which is not normally shared with the public.
Besides interviews, Craig got Cernan to reminisce with an old air force buddy and family friend. Their banter revealed insights about both men and their values. It also added an element of humor.
When Cernan left the moon, he not only left his footprints, he drew his daughter’s initials in the moon dust. The impact on his family of being a fighter pilot and an astronaut was a big part of the story. Cernan’s first wife — who couldn’t stand the life of notoriety — and his second wife both had a part in the film and attended the SXSW premier.
I intended to ask Cernan a question during the Q&A after the film: “What can we do to get the space program going again?” But, the last part of the film answered my question. Cernan has now devoted his life to rekindling interest in space exploration.
He may have been the last man on the moon since 1972, but I believe, through his efforts and the efforts of others devoted to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, he will not be the last forever. Craig’s excellent film will aid in this effort and it passes the “good biography test” – you leave feeling you know Gene Cernan.
While Gene Cernan was preparing to go to the moon, Brian Wilson was preparing to take planet earth by storm with his music.
Producer/Director Bill Pohlad has created an intricately structured film with Love and Mercy, which takes us into the complex and creative mind of rock and roll legend Wilson, played by John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine, The Butler).
The film starts at the point in Wilson’s life when schizophrenia had made him the legal dependent of a psychologist played by Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 12 Years a Slave). Wilson’s random encounter with car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks (Scrubs, The Hunger Games) begins a series of events that change both of their lives.
To understand how Wilson reached his confused and dependent state, the film takes us through a series of flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and into illusions inside Wilson’s mind. The younger, 1960s, Wilson is played by Paul Dano (Looper, 12 Years a Slave). His performance was touching.
Giamatti’s portrayal of Dr Eugene Landy, who eventually had to surrender his license to practice in California, was creepy to the max. It should put him into that pantheon of evil film psychologists starting with Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dr. Brodsky in A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Silberman in Termanator 2. I expect to see Paul Giamatti receiving a lot of awards next year.
This is a film about the Beach Boys, so, what about the music? The score is a critical part of telling the story. Wilson, who took part in the Q&A after the film, denied writing the score. That was only half true. His music was the basis, but it was masterfully arranged and massaged into the actual film score by composer Atticus Ross (Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Did Love & Mercy pass my “good biography test”? Absolutely, and beyond that, it does what a good movie must – it touches people’s hearts. During the screening, at quiet moments, you could hear people sobbing. The ending, which was upbeat, made me tear up out of happiness. I was back in high school with the radio blaring “California Girls.”[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1567403352,B000093BDX,B008LA7RH0]