Directed by: Bill Pohlad.
Written by: Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner.
Starring: Paul Dano (Brian Past), John Cusack (Brian Future), Elizabeth Banks (Melinda Ledbetter), Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy), Jake Abel (Mike Love), Kenny Wormald (Dennis Wilson), Erin Darke (Marilyn Wilson), Brett Davern (Carl Wilson), Bill Camp (Murry Wilson).
A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which mercilessly rips the musician biopic to shreds – pointing out just how ridiculous they are, with their stream of cameos, and lightning bolts of inspiration, which ties every hit song in an artist’s life with a specific event. I enjoyed the film even more than I did back in 2007 – in part because although those tropes and clichés had been well established when the movie came out; filmmakers still use them every time they make a new biopic of a musical genius. I was thinking about that film when I sat down to watch Love and Mercy – about Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind The Beach Boys – wondering whether I would see yet another version of the same story, with the details changed. I am happy to report that while Love and Mercy doesn’t wholly get away from those clichés – it mainly does. It doesn’t really try to cover all of Wilson’s life – but rather two specific periods in it. The first, in the mid-1960s, when a young Wilson, brilliantly played by Paul Dano, goes into a studio and ends up creating Pet Sounds – considering one of the greatest albums ever made (which is currently playing as I write this review) – despite the fact his own mental illness is making it harder for him to function, and the fact that so few people seem to share his inspired vision. The second comes some two decades later, when Wilson (now played by John Cusack) has almost completely succumbed to his mental illness – as he’s under the “care” of Dr. Eugene Landy, who controls every aspect of Wilson’s life – which he seems unable to do himself, and how a cars sales lady, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), eventually draws him back to the world of the living.
To be honest, it takes a while for these two storylines, which director Bill Pohlad cuts between, to start to feel like they are the story of the same man. That’s basically because it took a while for me to except Cusack as Wilson – partly because he doesn’t look the least bit like Dano (who looks uncannily like Wilson), and partly because it’s such a different role for Cusack in general. This is the actor who always seems to play the smart, articulate guy – the guy who can talk his way into or out of anything – and here he’s playing a painfully awkward, shy, quiet, introvert tormented by his mental illness internally, and Landy externally. I have no idea why Pohlad cast Cusack in this role – but once I settled into the movie, I have to say he made a good choice – the performance works, even if this segment of the movie isn’t quite as good as the one in the 1960s. Partly, that’s just because it’s more conventional – a love story between two unlikely lovers, who have to overcome those who want to keep them apart. But because Cusack and especially Banks are so good, they sell the story, and make it quietly heartbreaking – before the happy ending. Giamatti doesn’t give much depth to Landy – he’s clearly evil from the start – but it’s still an effective performance.
What makes Love and Mercy special though is the 1960s segments with Dano. Dano has quietly been building an impressive, if somewhat low-key resume, in the past few years – and here he gives one of the best performances of the year so far. Everyone around Wilson can sense there is something not quite right with him – when he withdraws from the latest tour to concentrate on their next album, he’s clearly uncomfortable. He acts somewhat strange in the studio as well – obsessively trying to get studio musicians to recreate the sounds that are stuck in his head. But in a burst of pure creative genius – the type he would never have again – he is able to finally create his masterpiece. Dano plays Wilson as a quiet, awkward guy – uncomfortable in social settings, and really only himself in the studio. In this segment, its Wilson’s father, Murry (Bill Camp), who steps into the Landy role of controlling man who Wilson cannot break free from. He used to manage the Beach Boys, but Wilson fired him – a crime for which he will never be forgiven – and Murry takes every opportunity he has to make Wilson feel horrible – something even some of his bandmates echo.
Love and Mercy cannot quite break free of the clichés of the biopic – having characters say things merely for the sake of the audience, etc. But refreshingly, it doesn’t indulge in the worse of them – there are no scenes where a sudden flash of inspirational because of a personal event makes Wilson write God Only Knows, or Wouldn’t It Be Nice (there is a scene where inspiration does strike to write Good Vibrations, but it’s not quite in the same vein of the past ones). Part of the reason why Love and Mercy works so well is probably do to writer Oren Moverman – who co-wrote the best musician biopic in recent years, I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, which also didn’t try to fully explain the enigmatic singer-songwriter. Love and Mercy is ultimately a very sympathetic movie to Wilson – a person for whom mental illness and musical genius lived side by side. But it doesn’t romanticize that either – the mental illness doesn’t cause the musical genius, but eventually stifles it. In that way, the movie is also quite tragic – just as Wilson was at the height of his genius, his illness stifles it – something that wouldn’t lift from him for years.
Love and Mercy will satisfy those looking for a biopic of Wilson, and to simply hear the music of the Beach Boys. But it also attempts to do more – and mainly succeeds. This is the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster season.