Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy seems like it might be one of those staples of Baby Boomer nostalgia, where an easily digestible story of the ups and downs of fame and fortune gets laid over a greatest-hits collection of, in this case, the Beach Boys’ tunes. That’s certainly what we got in Jersey Boys, and I’m sure following the same approach here would make a nice, tidy sum for the producers.
That’s not the kind of movie this is.
Love & Mercy is a powerful, audaciously constructed film; a work of genius from a virtuoso director, pushing the cinematic medium in expressive directions most mainstream filmmakers wouldn’t even dream of trying. It’s an appropriate choice for a biopic about Brian Wilson’s troubled life.
The story plays out largely in two separate streams. Almost surprisingly, neither of which cares all that much about the early sun-n-surf music for which the Beach Boys garnered the most fame. That alone tells us this is no mere Boomer-bait piece.
In 1965, Wilson (Paul Dano) quits touring with the band in order to focus on writing and producing the album that would become Pet Sounds. As his brothers and cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) fly off to Japan and Hawaii, Wilson earns the admiration of the Wrecking Crew group of studio musicians for his ingenuity and imagination as they lay down all the backing tracks for the group to sing with on their return.
This is also the time when Wilson’s mental health issues surfaced. Depression and anxiety were among them, but it was the auditory hallucinations that led to an eventual (mis)diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, even as it seems they helped inspire his musical experiments and innovations. Sounds and voices in his head slowly drove Wilson away from his family and friends. Love led the rest of the band in a pull back towards the musical roots Wilson saw as played-out, and there was the remaining influence of the Wilson boys’ abusive father and former manager (Bill Camp) hanging over his head.
In the late ’80s, Wilson (now played by John Cusack) has fallen under the influence of his therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who acts as his legal guardian. Wilson is estranged from his brothers, wife, and children under Landy’s orders, and lives in a house on the beach in Malibu while Landy has moved into Wilson’s house in the hills. Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who works in a Cadillac dealership, and slips her a note, crying out for help: “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” Landy lets Wilson and Ledbetter “date”, but always under the watchful eyes of his minders, warning that Wilson is erratic due to his mental issues. He leaves out the part about the stupendous amount of medication he prescribes.
Both halves of the film offer their own greatnesses. Cusack and Banks have a wonderful chemistry together. Banks evokes Ledbetter’s care, concern, and determination, while Cusack is perfect as the forlorn Wilson, almost totally reactive until something in Ledbetter draws him out of his shell. But if there has to be a winner, Dano’s performance as Wilson on the way down is it. He gets a much wider range of emotion to work with, from Wilson’s manic excitement as he experiments in the studio to his anguish as the band — his family — pulls slowly further away. And under it all is the mounting realization that something may be very wrong with him.
This is also where Pohlad’s own experimentation starts to become noticeable. The young Brian starts having disturbing hallucinatory episodes, which interrupt the normal sound of the scenes. These aren’t just extra noises that only Brian can hear; the whole sound mix shifts around in space, helping displace us from the film’s reality. It fills in with audio collages assembled by Atticus Ross — who has collaborated with Trent Reznor on Fincher’s most recent films — and his brother Leopold out of a sonic menagerie that only starts with Beach Boys songs. The effect is deeply unsettling, and marvelously effective.
But the most daring sequence Pohlad assembles comes late in the film. Dano’s section is obviously the past, but Cusack’s is framed as the future, which leaves a gaping hole in the middle for the present. This is the dark place in Wilson’s life, his infamous years in bed following his father’s death; this is the fulcrum about which the whole story turns, and we get only flashes of it until the glorious and breathtaking climax when we turn and follow Wilson’s mind through the middle of this place. It’s a montage of sound and image — assembled with obvious skill by editor Dino Jonsäter — that simply beggars description.
Unfortunately, Love & Mercy may well go the way of Pet Sounds before it. Critically acclaimed, the album fell on deaf ears among the public for far too long. Pohlad has taken a remarkably insightful script from writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner and executed it with a ferocious, bold, and singular vision. He cares more about turning Wilson’s story into art than turning conventional Baby Boomer nostalgia into profit, and we are all richer for it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.