Release: Friday, June 5, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Oren Moverman; Michael Alan Lerner
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Capturing the life of one of rock’n roll’s most luminous figures in The Beach Boys’ very own Brian Wilson poses obvious challenges. Painting broad strokes risks missing all those curious little imperfections, while delving into a day-in-the-life could yield a movie so large a mini-series event would seem a better format. There’s also the issue of casting the part.
Bill Pohlad’s love letter to the heyday of The Beach Boys phenomenon opts for the general specific, briefly opening a window into two different phases of Wilson’s colorful life, offering intimacy before slamming shut and locking forever once again. Despite aching with nostalgia Love & Mercy‘s potency actually stems from its uncanny ability to translate a simple cause and effect into an immersive experience. How Wilson’s young star (Paul Dano), brilliant but troubled, begets an aging, broken man (John Cusack), housebound and saddled with a routine that sees him less functional and more conforming. Some might describe it as a typical downfall, but typical isn’t the word I’d use to describe Wilson.
Pohlad might have gone the documentary or mini-series route, but then he’d have missed the opportunity to showcase Oscar-worthy performances from his leads, both of whom are clearly smitten by the chance to simultaneously dramatize this most peculiar musician. In the sixties, following the critical and commercial successes of albums like Surfin’ U.S.A. and Today!, Dano is magnetic. He becomes Wilson, dropping his trademark and quite contradictorily unsavory appeal in favor of an effusive personality tailored to fit the profile of musical genius. He’s pushing for a new Beach Boys sound as the band enters its eleventh studio album in Pet Sounds, a production that didn’t see the warmest reception on American shores due to its detouring into the . . . well, weird.
Love & Mercy provides ground-floor access into a studio that can’t hope to contain all the ideas young Brian Wilson, already fragile, has pouring out of him. But the story moves beyond those walls and into the eighties, embracing Cusack’s forty-something version, a character who, while representing a stark contrast from Dano’s, arguably is a more crucial component. Similar to young Brian’s often happenstance discovery of unique acoustics (the aforementioned 1966 release certainly hints at a memorable recording experience), older Brian’s stumbling into a car dealership has profound implications for his life post-Beach Boys.
Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter isn’t aware to whom she is potentially selling a Cadillac in an opening scene. Cusack is unabashedly sincere, playing a man mellowed almost to the point of self-denial, though he’s polite and charming. Melinda will be his saving grace, an oasis of beauty whose infatuation is reciprocated across a number of romantic escapades. In middle age, Brian has deteriorated considerably and is kept watch over by his suffocating psychotherapist, a Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, also fantastic). Supposedly the man is Brian’s legal guardian after the death of his father. As Melinda spends increasing amounts of time with Brian she realizes there is a great deal more to the story behind his darting eyes and weary smile.
Love & Mercy isn’t quite like its subject; it doesn’t exactly reshape the biopic if even subtly. There are tropes and there are predictable resolutions. Yet the two timelines complement one another so well the journey resonates on a much deeper level than average entertainment. Beyond superb performances from an engaging cast, Love & Mercy lives up to its title, offering up an abundance of both in its intense scrutiny of a figure many shouldn’t be blamed for assuming is a perpetually upbeat, satisfied human being. Melinda’s introduction is hardly a product of genius screenwriting but let’s not dismiss her as a product, period. Banks — as does Cusack — breathes life into her character, committing some of her finest work to date.
Pohlad’s fascination with the enigmatic also gives fans new context for some of The Beach Boys’ less recognizable tracks as well as those that have been played mercilessly over and again. We are privy to Wilson’s iconic vocals as much as we are to the tension he creates between his bandmates as his grip on reality slowly but surely loosens. Love & Mercy is as much an auditory sensation as it is visually arresting. Settings and wardrobe take us back several decades; tranquility eventually wins out over the disturbing, often painful psychological and emotional bruising. In many senses it is heartbreaking. Uplifting. Intoxicating. Bound to be a classic.
Brian Wilson’s cinematic treatment may never convince major theaters it’s worth their while but it won’t need to. Love & Mercy is a biopic gifted with a massive fan base already built in and, impressively, doubles as an eye-opening experience for general audiences as well as those leery of the California dream.
Recommendation: Love & Mercy isn’t a film just for fans of the legacy of Brian Wilson and/or The Beach Boys, though it’ll no doubt help elevate the experience. This is a profoundly touching experience, one that I couldn’t help becoming more enthusiastic about in the days following. It may not haunt you the same way it has me, but may I recommend this one on the strength of its performances at the very least. A very welcomed surprise in the middle of this summer blockbuster bash.
Running Time: 121 mins.
Quoted: “We’re not surfers, we never have been, and ‘real’ surfers don’t dig our music anyway!”
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