The common format for pop music biopics involves reducing complex lives to a series of sound bites and time-spanning montages, lending melodramatic continuity where there might not have been any in real life, but simultaneously robbing the subject of its complexity and vibrancy. Director Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” forsakes the highlight reel mentality in favor of an unflinching split-screen portrayal of a fractured genius in parallel moments of personal and artistic crisis.
The genius in question is Brian Wilson, the visionary composer and producer behind the Beach Boys, a man whose talent is matched only by the fragility of his personality. The parallel narratives find the Wilson of the late 1960s played by Paul Dano, and the middle-aged Wilson of the ’80s inhabited by John Cusack. Both performances are simply outstanding, and both avoid lampooning the mentally unstable Wilson or making a caricature of him. Instead, the twin performances present Wilson as a man plagued by father figures and often at odds with those who purported to love him.
Pohlad, with the help of screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, shows us Wilson at the height of the Beach Boys commercial success, as he resigns from touring with the band, begins crafting his masterpiece, “Pet Sounds” and gradually becomes untethered from conventional reality. This period is contrasted against Cusack’s portrayal of an all but helpless Wilson under the legal and pharmacological care of Dr. Eugene Landy, played with sinister strength and barely controlled menace by Paul Giamatti. Cusack’s Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter, (a saintlike, stoic Elizabeth Banks) a Cadillac saleswoman who would become his second wife. Ledbetter helps Wilson break free from Landy’s grasp, and eventually to find a new diagnosis in opposition to Landy’s, which had placed Wilson on a heavy diet of drugs to battle paranoid schizophrenia.
“Love & Mercy” operates as an unconventional love story with a happy ending, but there is much more going on here, of the sort that will satisfy lovers of Wilson the artist. Scenes depicting the recording of the “Pet Sounds” songs are handled with a graceful verisimilitude, and Dano is believable as the young Wilson, a man struggling to break free from his overbearing and abusive father, manager/producer Murry Wilson (Bill Camp).
Murry ridicules his son as he attempts to move beyond the Beach Boys surf/summer/girls/cars formula and toward the increasingly harmonically complex and ornately arranged sounds he was hearing in his head – “my pocket symphonies to God,” as Wilson would have it. At the same time, there is friction within the band, particularly with Wilson’s cousin, singer Mike Love (Jake Abel) who hated the “Pet Sounds” material, and attempted repeatedly to strong-arm Wilson into returning to the simpler formulaic fare. It’s no surprise that Love comes across as a bit of a prat here – his disdain for Wilson’s most ambitious work has long been a matter of public record.
Compared to Landy, however, Love looks like a hero. Wilson’s creepy caregiver and, for a while, legal guardian, comes across as the worst among the long list of male figures who did their best to use Wilson for personal gain. (Murry, Love, Landy – Pohlad expertly implies the connection between these abusive father figures, without bashing us over the head with it.)
“Love & Mercy” is a beautiful film with stunning cinematography – long, Hitchcockian shots in the recording studio, deftly handled multi-angle scenes throughout – and unfailingly smart writing. The music is handled with extreme care, a fact that will make the army of music nerds comprising Wilson’s fervent fan base very happy. But the viewer only tangentially familiar with Wilson’s art, and his story, will find the movie just as compelling. In Pohlad’s hands, Wilson’s story is a universal, and ultimately a triumphant, one.
Love & Mercy
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Bill Pohlad
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language.
The Lowdown: Parallel narratives tell the story of the troubled, enigmatic and brilliant Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.