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Dir. Bill Pohlad ,2015
In Middle School each Wednesday we had elective classes that we could choose to take. One trimester I took one on the History of Rock and Roll, which was mostly just watching documentaries about various bands. I remember the teacher skipped over most of the Beach Boy’s doc because she felt that while we should know about the Beatles drug-use, it might ruin the Beach Boys to know about their dark side. This points to how the Beach Boys, in large part their incarnation in the 1980s, John Stamos affiliation included, tapped into a very specific nostalgia. That there’s something doubly sad or perhaps sinister about such happy music coming from dark places. And the Beach Boys suffered an exceptional amount of darkness even by rock band terms: Wilson’s mental illness, tragic deaths, affiliations with Charles Manson, abuse, financial treachery. At a time when it seems like everyone is getting a biopic it seems like it’s past due for one about Brian Wilson. His eccentricities have become the stuff of pop music legend. While it doesn’t always work, Love & Mercy provides an interesting and fitting take on Wilson’s life and music, focusing more on themes rather than reenacting history, that culminates in a beautiful ending.
Love & Mercy provided two complications to my reviewing it. First, it’s not Brian Wilson’s fault that his life is full of well-established biopic cliches. He can’t help it that his life bears striking similarities to that of David Helfgott (of Shine; the musical genius who suffers a breakdown in the shadow of his domineering father only to be brought back to mental stability by the love of a woman). Eugene Landy (played perhaps a bit too sleazily, raising the question “can someone be too perfectly cast?”, by Paul Giamatti) comes across as an absolute monster and the worst mental health professional since Nurse Ratched, though it seems accurate from what I’ve read. The film omits much of Brian Wilson’s more famously eccentric activities in the 1970s, as well as his rather prolific drug use. This may have been that Wilson’s eccentricities and drug problems seem so much like scenes from a Hollywood script that including them would have made it feel even more familiar. At the same time, however, these events would have shown the seriousness of Wilson’s mental state I would have liked a bit more nuanced film where we see Landy help Wilson in the late 70’s, only to turn and use him in the 80s. Landy as a monster, but one who did some good for Wilson and his music (the album he forces Wilson to make was his rather excellent 1988 self-titled release) might have made the film feel less melodramatic.
Second, visually, some elements of Love & Mercy are kind of clunky. However, as an audio work, where it matters most, the film is exceptional and layered. I often complain that biopics fail because they take the lives of interesting, creative people, often iconoclasts, and transplant them neatly onto well-established narrative templates. Love & Mercy should be commended for trying to mirror the hallmarks of Brian Wilson’s work in its structure. The film is told in two timelines: Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) from Pet Sounds to his breakdown after Smile and Brian Wilson (John Cusack) in the late 80’s essentially kidnapped his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. The alternating story fragments from each mirror Wilson’s own fragmented songwriting style. Like his songs, the film is variations on themes (anxiety and abusive father figures) which may not always work until they come together in a beautiful and moving climax. The sound-design of the film is particularly important, not just because Wilson was a sound-design perfectionist and innovator, but because Wilson doesn’t really watch movies; after a psychotic episode watching Frankenheimer’s Seconds, he stopped going to the movies; the IMDB trivia page states that Wilson watched this film.
The use of music is always an issue in musical biopics. At times they can feel little more than vehicles to deliver a pictorial version of a Greatest Hits album. Pohlad does an exceptional job handling the music in his film. We hear most of the Beach Boys songs in fragments and at various stages of recording. The direct cinema influenced recording session scenes are based heavily on audio from the Pet Sounds and Smile Sessions archival CD releases (you should check them out if you haven’t. The mostly a-capella “stack-o-vocal” tracks on the Pet Sounds Sessions are some of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard). The point seems to not be “hey, listen to all these awesome songs” but rather to give us insight into Wilson’s compositions, how he heard and imagined music (the film also focuses more on The Wrecking Crew than on the rest of the Beach Boys which feels like a nice showcase for some of the greatest studio musicians). As we hear these songs in construction, Pohlad also rewards viewers familiar with Pet Sounds. Hearing completed versions of songs underscoring Wilson’s own mental anguish might have felt far too much like a jukebox musical. For instance, hearing a lyric from “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” would be far too literal. Instead, we hear Wilson work through a drum part from the song which serves the dual purpose of showing Wilson’s mental activity in developing the song, and highlighting the theme for those familiar with the song.
A musical biopic can also try to do too much; to serve more as educational video rather than actual film. Love & Mercy mostly avoids this by focusing on specific aspects of Wilson’s life and his creative process. However, there are a few necessary scenes that aren’t as interesting because they feel so familiar (once again, can I hold it against the Beach Boys that they went through the typical band politics and infighting?). Mike Love has perhaps the most thankless job in the mythology of the Beach Boys, the pragmatic business man who has to fire Wilson from the band. He is somewhat redeemed in the film as we see Wilson and Love compose Good Vibrations, but it’s kind of a thankless character (Van Dyke Parks also comes across as the biggest hipster ever, but that might be fitting).
Paul Dano is perfect in this role; he looks and sounds just like Wilson. He’s an explosive actor, one of the best of his generation, and does a nice job bottling up his intensity. But John Cusack, who is getting some mixed reviews, also gives a heartbreaking and understated performance that I didn’t think he had in him. The casting of Cusack may not seem to make as much sense, though Pohlad says that Cusack and Wilson during this time period do resemble each other. Cusack’s casting serves an interesting meta-purpose as well. The quick description about the film, of love saving a troubled man, seems to reinforce all sorts of romance film cliches, many of which romanticize women to the point of restricting their agency or presenting them only in the service of male characters. However, Melinda is the catalyst for action here; she drives the action of the film, and it’s not exactly a love conquers all kind of story. Love takes a backseat to getting a sick person the care they deserve. It’s small but important nuance. The Hollywood script would say that Wilson, thanks to love, would be cured. Here it means that he’s now on better medication.
The final scene, a “where do we go now?” moment between the two main characters, is familiar yet brave. At this moment, the film uses “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” to play over Wilson’s dialogue. We don’t know what Brian tells Melinda but we have the general idea. The song exists in a weird dialogic space.This is not a credits song, the titular “Love & Mercy” gets that role, but rather a spiritual conversation. Wilson has now come to terms with his past, and felt safe enough to share the way he hears the world and bare his troubled soul to somebody else.