‘Love & Mercy’ is not only one of the best films of 2015, but it is as good a musical biopic as I have ever seen. This is a movie that hits all the right notes, foregoing genre clichés for something more introspective and interesting. It reveals the gloom hidden within the most luminous of Beach Boys songs.
In ‘Love & Mercy’, we witness the anguish at the center of the Beach Boys. That center belongs to Brian Wilson. The first image we see in the movie is of his ear, and it is clear right from the start that we are going to be inside his head and hear the world passing through this ears.
This intelligent, compassionate film marks the directorial debut of Bill Pohlad whose filmmaking sensibilities breathe new life into a genre known for conventional modes of storytelling. Credit the terrific nonlinear screenplay penned by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner.
The two actors who play Wilson at different life stages are Paul Dano (1965 – 1968) and John Cusack (1980s) and both give the best performances of their careers – mostly restrained and subtle but electric and expressive when the moments call for it.
It is Cusack’s Wilson that we first meet – his shoulders slouched, his speech unhurried – when he visits a Cadillac dealership. There, he meets a saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who he takes an instant liking to. Wilson is shopping with an enigmatic therapist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
How did this man before us, deftly embodied by Cusack, eventuate from Dano’s Wilson? This cryptogram is deciphered enticingly, as the picture seamlessly and fluidly shifts between these two time periods.
Around the apex of Beach Boys monomania, Wilson has a panic attack on an airplane, and withdraws from a demanding touring schedule to write new material. The result: the 1966 album ‘Pet Sounds’ which was Wilson’s solo record in all but name and considered one of the greatest albums of that era (for the record, it ranks among my all-time favorite albums – puns always intended).
Most films of this sort would demonstrate a fall from fame related to substance abuse that the artist would have to overcome before a moment of triumph during a live performance. They would try really hard to recreate the period details and the live concert settings. ‘Love & Mercy’ goes into stranger and deeper places than movies of its kind would ever dare to. It is also more interested in process and artistic methodology. We spend a lot of time with Wilson in the studio experimenting with the knobs and buttons on a music console to get that distinctive sound for the ‘Pet Sounds’. These scenes demonstrate how Wilson’s innovative drive helped him create a work of art without giving into the pressures from record labels. And it also showcases Pohlad’s directorial chops – he makes the creation of a familiar record as exciting as hearing it for the first time. Pohlad may be sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, but he is an accomplished producer: ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘The Tree of Life’, ‘Fair Game’, ‘The Runaways’, ‘Wild’. With such a varied filmography, ‘Love & Mercy’ demonstrates he has learned very well from some first-rate filmmakers how to orchestrate diverse styles and approaches.
I haven’t been big on Dano in the past but his work here is gently infallible and we see how he eventually becomes the whispery and defenseless Wilson inhabited by Cusack. Cusack and Banks are fantastic together. Any other picture would have smothered Ledbetter with the Good Samaritan character type and she is all the more believable as Wilson’s liberator because Banks doesn’t play her that way.
Wilson had an appallingly abusive father (Bill Camp) who was the Beach Boys’ manager until he was replaced by Landy. Wilson conforms to a lot of Landy’s apocryphal methods because he is viewed as a father figure. Landy was just as abusive – he was just able to conceal it in the guise of therapy .A curiosity: I’m failing to recall scenes between Landy and Wilson from the 1960s. I suppose it isn’t all that important – the movie isn’t interested in making any Freudian assertions of Wilson’s trauma.
The best biopics are the ones that do not chart the entire course of the subject’s life but provide a window sufficient enough for the viewer to understand why the story was worth telling. By focusing on these two stages (and ignoring the events of the intervening years), we get an exquisitely moving, and unforgettably complex portrait. And, of course, they pave the way for the stage that 72-year-old Wilson will be occupying as he tours the US and the UK over the next 4 months. This is a picture that mirrors the artistry of its subject. You won’t see a better biopic this year. QED