Great art doesn’t require great suffering, but a lot of great art was created in the presence of it. The dangers of getting causation and correlation wrong in this case should be self-explanatory. “I always found the concept of a tortured artist distasteful,” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy told The Los Angeles Times in 2011, talking about his journey from addiction to sobriety. “My distaste for it probably prevented me from getting help sooner. I didn’t want to admit that I was falling into a cliché.”
And yet the cliché persists, in artists’ lives and, perhaps more commonly, in art about them. This year is big—though perhaps not bigger than any other—for art about troubled musicians. The documentaries Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (currently available on HBO Go) and Amy (as in Winehouse, in theaters July 10) tell of two iconic singers who died at age 27 after struggling with fame, depression, and drugs. And this week, the scripted film Love and Mercy tells of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who survived trauma but only barely. Thankfully, none of these films make rock-star self-destruction seem particularly glamorous. Watching them makes clear that while problems can feed music, music’s success can feed far greater problems—cliché or no.
Love and Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, was made with Wilson’s approval but feels like anything but a safe, genre-conforming biopic. Rendered in bright colors and structured in stream-of-consciousness style, slipping back and forth between timelines, it’s a nearly surreal take on a surreal life, and it’s unflinching about the depths to which Wilson sank. The film actually features two Wilsons: the cherubic Paul Dano as the brilliant but strange 20-something Beach Boy, and the particularly haggard-seeming John Cusack as the middle-aged lost soul.
The younger Wilson stays in California as the rest of his band tours Japan, so as to work on Pet Sounds, the album that would secure the Beach Boys’ status as innovators. The sources of that innovation, as portrayed in the movie, are the sounds in Wilson’s head. There are scenes of him standing alone in rooms as droning noises and snippets of speech—arranged by Nine Inch Nails affiliate Atticus Ross—crowd in on the soundtrack while Dano looks around in wonder. There are other scenes of Wilson commanding the legendary collection of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, urging them along to make the kinds of arrangements that had never been made before. But the source of brilliance is also a source of pain. The music gets better and better, but Dano’s mental illness gets worse, to the point where he’s babbling nonsense to his bandmates during serious meetings and canceling recording sessions because the vibes in the studio don’t agree with him.
This depiction alone would be enough to explain the condition in which the elder Wilson enters the movie: wandering in a car dealership, muttering cryptically to a saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (played with intelligence and patience by Elizabeth Banks). But we soon learn that he’s under the prison-like care of Dr. Eugene Landy, the kind of menacing egomaniac Paul Giamatti was born to play. Whatever Wilson’s problems were in the 60s and 70s, the film makes them seem minor in comparison to the problems he had once Landy entered the picture. The therapist keeps him overmedicated, won’t let him leave the house without permission, and screams at him to make a new album and earn Landy money. Real-life spoiler: Wilson’s alive today and married to Ledbetter, the woman who rescued him.
Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse obviously can’t be compared directly to Wilson, or even to each other. They made different kinds of music, had different problems, and only Wilson lived past 27. But it’s hard to miss the similarities their documentaries have with each other and with Love and Mercy. These individuals were born with innate talent: Wilson’s creativity amazes and irritates his siblings, the opening clip of Amy is of her delivering a stunning rendition of “Happy Birthday” as a teenager, and the early moments of Montage of Heck feature family members talking about what a hyperactively creative kid Cobain was. But domestic trauma also figures heavily into these narratives. Both Cobain and Winehouse were apparently transformed by their parents’ divorce, and all three musicians had daddy issues. Cobain’s father is represented as emotionally distant, Winehouse’s manipulates her, and Wilson’s, as played by Bill Camp, is terrifyingly mean. Music is portrayed as being, in part, a reaction to tumultuous upbringings.
Drugs, on the other hand, aren’t depicted as fueling success. Instead, they’re a dangerous result of it. Winehouse and Cobain are shown as using heroin both to escape from the huge demands of fame and to bond with romantic partners. Wilson’s first on-screen hit of LSD happens at a party, compliments of some hipsters who’d been stroking his ego, and when Dr. Landy overmedicates Wilson, it’s in large part because of who he is, not the affliction he has. While there are no Landy-types in Cobain and Winehouse’s stories, the specter of exploitation looms large in Winehouse’s narrative in the form of family members, managers, and boyfriends. In all three stories, there’s great pressure on the artists to keep producing the kind of music that made them successful—and when the musicians can’t or don’t want to, they start spiraling downward.
Unsurprisingly, given how things ended up, the two documentaries leave viewers feeling pretty awful. Montage of Heck largely uses Cobain’s own words—interviews, drawing, journal entries, home videos—to document his despair and mounting inclination towards suicide at the end of his life. Amy relies on horrifying paparazzi footage and clips of her stumbling around on stage in her final years, partaking in the same voyeurism that tormented her. Wilson’s tale, by contrast, is strangely inspiring. For however scarring the journey and for however much help it took to get him healthy, the fact that he lives today offers some hope in a culture obsessed with the destruction of the artist.