‘Manson: Music From an Unsound Mind’ Review

It’s been 50 years since the horrific and tragic Tate-LaBianca murders, and that has caused a renewed fascination with that era in general, and the Manson family specifically. History has rightly labeled Charles Manson as a madman and a demented cult leader, but it’s even more frightening to think of him as a human being…and that’s exactly what music documentarian Tom O’Dell does in “Manson: Music From an Unsound Mind.”

O’Dell examines Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star. If you’ve read anything about Manson, you are likely aware of his interest in music and quasi-affiliation with Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher and other movers and shakers in the 1960’s music industry. But O’Dell digs deeper. We learn more about Manson’s childhood and early exposure to music. We learn of his dreams to become a songwriter and musician, and how many recognized his raw talent. And most amazingly, we hear clips from Manson’s actual recordings at Gold Star Recording Studio in 1967…including the quite unique “Garbage Dump.”

O’Dell follows Manson’s journey after his release from prison. Attracted to communal nature and the music scene, Manson made his way to Northern California. The Haight/Ashbury scene made famous by The Grateful Dead appealed to him very much, and it’s here where his charisma drew his first followers. Soon Manson and his followers headed to Southern California where the music scene was even more dynamic and offered even greater opportunity. He fell in with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, and Wilson’s musical partner Gregg Jakobson provides some insight into what it was like to have Manson around.

Others interviewed include Rolling Stone magazine writers Anthony DeCurtis and David Felton, Dennis Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins, Manson biographer Simon Wells, and former ‘Family’ member Dianne Lake. Ms. Lake was 14 years old at the time she was swept up by the family, and her recollections are quite chilling…though fortunately for her, she left before the murders took place. It’s through these interviews where we fully understand Manson’s broken dreams, his magnetism, and his delusional state.

After being rejected by Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), the highly successful music producer of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, Manson seemed to slip from reality, which fully formed the historical figure of which we are most familiar. It’s quite interesting to note the effects on Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys’ drummer had fully supported Manson as a songwriter – taking the song “Cease to Exist” and changing the title to “Never Learn to Love” and adjusting the lyrics so the group could record it as a “B” side. Manson was paid for his original song, but this connection likely pushed Wilson over the edge after the murders.

The influence of The Beatles’ White Album and “Helter Skelter” (a song about a fair ride) are discussed, and we hear stories from sound engineer Stephen Desper and Manson’s fellow ex-con Phil Kaufman about the recording and release of “Lie,” Manson’s only album. The story is filled with the best and worst of Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll, violence, and a race war. We leave with a better understanding of how a rejected Manson corrupted a community built on love and peace. It doesn’t soften the blow of the tragedy, but it does help explain it. O’Dell’s film works for those who ‘know all about it’ and those who are interested in learning more.