Cinematic quintet strikes right notes

Tommy Tedesco, seen in "The Wrecking Crew" (Courtesy of Denny Tedesco)

Music is a universal language that brings people together. We all know this because we have experienced it. Even a barely musically literate person such as myself can be a grand appreciator.

The 2015 slate of cinema releases yielded an unexpectedly pleasing quintet of films about American and British popular music and musicians, about stories and sounds that documented history, that became history. They tell deeply felt stories of art and collaboration, of heartbreak and darkness, death and resurrection.

These films are about a variety of artists and genres and deserve to be noted because the music expresses the heights and depths of human experience that lives on and transcends borders of the mind, heart, spirit and geography. These films, "The Wrecking Crew," "Love & Mercy," "Straight Outta Compton," "Amy" and "Janis: Little Girl Blue," are quality productions that tell amazing stories.

"The Wrecking Crew" is a low-budget documentary by Denny Tedesco. The Wrecking Crew was a group of studio musicians (including the director's father, Tommy Tedesco) in Los Angeles who came together, in T-shirts and smoking cigarettes, to lay tracks for some of the greatest talents of the late 1950s through the early '70s, such as Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, Cher, the Monkees, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

The crew became music producer Phil Spector's wall of sound. People thought their casual attitude would ruin the music business.

To meet the unseen musicians behind the music that continues to be popular today is a revelation. Most of the musicians never got one credit and, at the time, they didn't care; they needed to work to support their families.

It is remarkable to watch these musicians collaborate and work off each other, sometimes laying down multiple tracks in a day with little or no practice. That they remain mostly anonymous and never received royalties or credit for their work, much of it original, seems so wrong. This is an amazing film and I loved it.

"Love & Mercy" is a biopic about Wilson's descent into darkness and his resurrection. Paul Dano plays the young Wilson in the 1960s at the height of his career. But a panic attack starts him on a descent into drug addiction and mental illness and he quits touring to focus on an album, "Pet Sounds," and his "pocket symphony to God," "Good Vibrations."

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Wilson, now played by John Cusack, is barely functioning because an unscrupulous psychiatrist, played by Paul Giamatti, has criminally medicated him and has power of attorney over every aspect of his life. I would never have imagined Dano and Cusack playing the same person, but this film is perfectly cast. The real Wilson sings the title song at the end with so much humility, you can feel his gratitude for the love and mercy in his life.

"Straight Outta Compton" tells the story of N.W.A. (an abbreviation of Niggaz Wit Attitudes), a rap group from Compton, Calif., that popularized gangsta rap and launched successful music and acting careers for performers such as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Their lyrics were controversial and they were accused of disrespecting women as well as the police. In 1989, the FBI demanded that the group stop performing an anti-police song but the group refused.

O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube's real-life son, plays his father in the film and the resemblance is uncanny; his performance is really good. Giamatti is N.W.A.'s manager, Jerry Heller, who was accused of financial impropriety and causing the group to break up after only five years.

With the current Black Lives Matter movement and so much police brutality toward African-Americans, the film "Straight Outta Compton" resonates with relevance. The original screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

"Amy" is one of those rare documentaries that can break your heart. It is the story of the brilliant and talented Amy Winehouse, born to Jewish parents and a musical family in London in 1983. She was a young teen when her parents divorced and this seems to have unmoored her in almost every way except for her music.

As her professional career took off, so did her use of drugs and alcohol. Her albums, "Frank" (2003) and "Back to Black" (2006), both went platinum. The song "Back to Black" is a secular requiem and her performance of it in the film is the saddest thing I have ever heard.

Winehouse died at age 27 in 2011. All I could think of at the end of the film was De profundis. Music and film are tables around which our shared humanity can gather in mutual mercy and healing. "Amy" won an Oscar in the Best Documentary category and a Grammy for Best Music Film.

"Janis: Little Girl Blue," by one of my favorite documentarians, Amy Berg, was shown out of competition at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015, but everyone I knew there went to see it anyway.

Janis Joplin was born to a Christian family in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943. She had body issues and didn't fit in, not at home or at school. But she painted and began singing folk songs and the blues. She moved to San Francisco after a brief time in college and began using psychoactive drugs and mainlined meth and sometimes heroin -- besides drinking heavily.

After some time at home to rehabilitate herself, she joined a psychedelic rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and in 1968, started her own band and a solo career.

A headliner at Woodstock in 1969, drugs, alcohol and people followed her but she always went to bed alone. The film shows Joplin's outgoing personality -- how could anyone not like her? But she led a very lonely life and died in 1970, at the age of 27, of a heroin overdose compounded by alcohol.

Her sound, and her only No. 1 hit, "Me and Bobby McGee" are national treasures. I would like to have known Joplin. The film makes me miss her.

As self-destructive as some of these artists were, their music then and now has the power to take us all the way to church. They created musical earworms and soul worms, so to speak, music that enters the soul and never leaves. I cannot explain adequately the dissonance between such the giftedness and subsequent downward spirals we often see.

But Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the Grammys, which some say was directed at the interrupter Kanye West, seems like good advice for all recording artists, though it comes too late for some:

As the first woman to win album of the year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don't let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you're going, you'll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here