Love & Mercy
Breaking music biopic expectations, Love & Mercy takes viewers into the mindset of Brian Wilson at two key points in his life.
Wouldn't it be nice to see a music biopic that does its subject justice? One that understands that telling the tale of a rock or pop star requires something other than splashing songs over scenes of arguing? Focusing on conflict is what most movies end up doing, but they don't always elicit much interest. While Love & Mercy does plenty that toes the genre line, thankfully it's more interested in the man behind the band than the usual unhappy group shenanigans.
That man is Brian Wilson, and his band is the Beach Boys, the '60s and '70s surfer-themed act turned '80s collaborators with John Stamos. There's much, much more to them than that, of course, and to Wilson. Many consider his innovation, experimentation and harmonies, as evidenced on the widely acclaimed 1966 record Pet Sounds, as markers of musical genius.
At first glance, his story reads like a typical before and after snapshot of fame and stardom, including the obligatory drug benders and erratic behaviour, as well as the later fading out of the scene. What simmers beneath the early parties and the eventual burnout is the extent of his musical abilities and its interplay with his fragile mental state.
In fact, Love & Mercy makes his mindset the main attraction, rather than the career highs or lows. The film cobbles together a portrait of Wilson from two points in his life, and they comprise quite the contrast. Wide-eyed in his twenties (as played by Paul Dano), he retreats from touring to invest his talents not just in new songs, but in creating the greatest album ever made. Over-medicated in his forties (now in the guise of John Cusack), he tries to rebuild a sense of normality with the help of a new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) and his psychologist (Paul Giamatti), the former offering a more nurturing relationship than the latter.
You need not be a Beach Boys fan to become invested in his plight, nor fond of Wilson's songs to enjoy an engaging ride through his history. For aficionados and the uninitiated alike, filmmaker Bill Pohlad makes Love & Mercy a personal tale first and foremost. Yes, the movie uses the expected soundtrack, but only when the music suits the on-screen events depicted. Singles such as the iconic 'God Only Knows' take on an entirely new meaning when they're given context by Wilson's troubles and moods.
The film also attempts to match its style to its subject, collages combining the two time periods, and mimicking the ups and downs of Wilson's energy. It's a smart, immersive and entertaining move from a director who last made a movie way back in 1990 and is actually better known as a producer of Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave.
His choice of leads similarly proves savvy and well suited, and while Dano and Cusack look nothing alike, they do perfect the one thing that could've made or broken the entire feature. That'd be the vibe of a singer and songwriter who attempted first to thrive, and then to survive, the roller-coaster that is the music industry. Wilson's vibrations aren't always good, befitting the ebb and flow of his reality — but as sensitively transferred to the screen, they do inspire more than enough excitations.