Q: About three years ago I read the results of some research on 1,489 rock, pop, punk, R&B, rap, electronica and New Age stars who became famous between 1956 and 2006 – from Elvis Presley to the Arctic Monkeys. Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University found that 137 of the stars, or 9.2 percent, had died, representing “higher levels of mortality than demographically matched individuals in the general population. So I was struck when two films now on general release examine the decline of two rock artists. I imagine you’ve seen Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, and Love & Mercy, which is about Brian Wilson, who is still living, but went through a mysteriously dark period in his life when he didn’t get out of bed for over three years. Any thoughts?
A: Both films are superb. Amy is a bio-documentary, even better than the director Asif Kapadia‘s previous film Senna, which was excellent. Kapadia’s thesis, if we can call it that, is that Winehouse never craved fame and when it arrived was totally unprepared for it. The film stitches together footage from her childhood and adult life, so we actually see her saying she would probably kill herself if she ever became famous. Of course, she became accustomed to the bright lights pretty quickly, but never seemed fully comfortable. This was a factor in her death in 2011 at the young age of 27. Brian Wilson, now 73, was also a troubled soul, though the attention of the media and adulation of audiences was never a problem: in fact, he craved recognition and was embattled with other members of his band, the Beach Boys, and his father who managed the band, who wanted to stick to a proven musical formula while Wilson tried to break musical boundaries. “Who do you think you are, Mozart?” asks one of his fellow band members in the film. Wilson doesn’t answer, the implication being that he probably did see himself this way.
Q: One of the findings of the study I mentioned was the role played by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Both Winehouse and Wilson were no strangers to toxic substances, right?
A: True, but the power of both films, in my view, is that they show that rock musicians on the rise tend to attract the close attention of people who don’t typically share their creative aspirations. In Amy, we see Blake Fielder-Civil assist her towards her use of hard drugs. Fielder-Civil comes across as the kind of guy who puts his own interests before all others’. Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse is angry about the film which reveals him ready to exploit her fame, at one point pushing her to have her picture taken when she clearly wants to escape this kind of thing. We hear producer Lucian Grainge explain that, when she became a bigtime celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Amy acquired what he describes as an infrastructure of agents, bodyguards and assorted other personnel to act as a kind of buffer zone between her and the media. Grainge says it was necessary, “but it wasn’t reality.” Wilson’s father was a famously tyrannical type, who initially managed the Beach Boys in the 1960s. Bill Pohlad‘s film is a drama, rather than documentary, and paints an ugly picture of Murry Wilson, Brian’s father. Anyone who has read Wilson’s autobiography knows that Murry was a domineering dad who beat his children. In the film we see him pouring scorn on Brian’s attempts to experiment with rock music. Wilson felt challenged by the work of the Beatles. His father mocks his son’s striving to keep pace with their innovations. Wilson’s masterwork Smile was never completed and was released only in 2004. Like Winehouse, Wilson used drugs, but the film doesn’t big up their role in his retreat. Though Wilson himself has talked openly of this. The other key character in Wilson’s life was Dr Eugene Landy, who is show to be a therapist-cum-guardian-cum-protector, who takes care of Wilson, but in a way that suits himself.
Q: So the so-called rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is probably to blame for the troubles of both artists, but not in the way many might think. It seems you’re saying there is a kind of sociological process going on in which artistic and commercial success attracts self-serving people who see rock stars as exploitable.
A: Yes. Remember though, in Wilson’s case, Murry was probably well-intentioned, but, like a lot of intensely ambitious parents, just didn’t allow his son enough freedom to express his art. This may or not have been a factor in Wilson’s mental state. The conclusion of both movies seems to be that rock music presents a landscape in which artists can flourish, but where there other figures who see them as geese who lay golden eggs.