Absorbing story, great music in Wilson biopic ‘Love & Mercy’
The problem with so many rock ’n’ roll biographical movies is the sin of admission. There’s so much material that the filmmakers don’t know how to be selective, and so they try to cram in everything. The first dream of fame, the long slog to stardom and the inevitable fall, sex and drugs, personal dramas, romance, marital strife—it all goes by in a blur while there’s hardly any time to appreciate the music.
Not so in Love & Mercy, the generally absorbing fiction film about the often-amazing life and harrowing times of Brian Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys. The first feature film directed by longtime producer Bill Pohlad (whose producing credits include 12 Years A Slave, and Brokeback Mountain), it narrows its focus to two pivotal moments in the life of its subject. As these two parallel stories play out, the larger picture of fame, fortune, and psychological turmoil emerges, but by keeping Wilson’s evolving psyche in the forefront, the movie rarely feels fragmented. And it’s all connected by the music, a fabulous, gluttonous feast of Wilson music from surf tunes to Smile that informs every single scene.
Paul Dano is terrific playing the younger Brian. In the mid-1960s, at the height of his creative genius (and irrationally terrified of flying), he decides to stop touring with the rest of the Beach Boys, hole up in the studio, and start producing the cycle of extraordinary songs that will become the celebrated Pet Sounds album. John Cusack is also effective playing the older Brian. In the mid-1980s, he’s an over-medicated zombie under the thumb of controlling Hollywood psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). But he gets a shot at redemption in a Cadillac showroom where he unexpectedly clicks with pretty saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
No, Dano and Cusack look nothing like each other, and it beggars credibility for a few minutes that one might ever morph into the other. But Dano does look a lot like the younger Wilson, with his lank, mid-1960s pudding-bowl haircut. And Cusack taps into the same vibe of emotional turbulence—innocent, gauche, and fleetingly desperate—that gives the film portrait continuity.
Working with a cogent script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, Pohlad establishes the early Beach Boys surf music phenomenon in a brisk opening montage of hit songs, photo ops, live concerts and TV appearances. (The grainy, saturated images look completely vintage.) Cut to the furtive, yet still oddly charming older Brian flirting with Melinda in that Caddy showroom—until their brief tête-à-tête is interrupted by Dr. Landy and his henchmen “bodyguards,” who dog Brian’s every step.
The film continues to alternate between these two tracks. We see the younger Brian at work from Pet Sounds through “Good Vibrations,” moving away from surf music and meticulously composing tracks in the studio while coping with his horrible, abusive father (Bill Camp), risking antagonism from his bandmates and altering his mind on LSD. Meanwhile, romance blooms between the older Brian and Melinda. She determines to free him from the Svengali-like grip of Landy, whose methods of “treatment” are appalling (screaming fits and jars of pills), and whose motives are highly suspect.
By far, the most entertaining scenes are in the studio, when Brian is laying down complex musical tracks to songs like “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with the veteran L.A. studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, while the rest of the band (who will add vocals later) are off on tour. Brian’s creative energy is infectious as he drives himself to replicate every detail of the sounds he hears in his head, whether using cellos as a rhythm section, or painstakingly plucking piano strings with a bobby pin.
The ’80s scenes are never quite as compelling. On the other hand, Pohlad wisely steers clear of the mental breakdown period that connected these two eras in Wilson’s real life. (Although his scary weight gain and infamous three years in bed are alluded to in passing.) We may not understand Wilson’s fragile personality much better at film’s end, but we appreciate even more the ecstatic frenzy that produced his most innovative music.
LOVE & MERCY
***(out of four)
With Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, and Elizabeth Banks. Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner. Directed by Bill Pohlad. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes. PHOTO: Paul Dano plays a young Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s ‘Love & Mercy,’ a fictional film about the creative life of the Beach Boys founder.