Love & Mercy (2015)
Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Each year there’s a bunch of biopics vying for your attention. Some like Straight Outta Compton and Steve Jobs generated quite a bit of buzz. Love & Mercy about the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson was also very well received, though the movie’s release was quieter.
The most striking choice director Bill Pohlad makes is in casting two very different actors to respectively play the young and older Brian Wilson. Surprisingly it’s not as jarring as I would have imagined. This choice helped to immediately differentiate between the two eras as the film cut back and forth in time. Love & Mercy is factual based but it’s more concerned with what’s going on inside Wilson’s head than what his facial features look like.
It’s also an interesting decision considering that Brian Wilson was misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, which is not the same as multi-personality disorder, but it’s the idea that depicting a single representation of him might not fully reflect his different mental states over the decades.
Both lead performances are worthy of a longer conversation. Paul Dano is readily more identifiable as Brian Wilson than John Cusack. Paul Dano isn’t so much mimicking Brian Wilson as he is embodying him. Director Pohlad makes good use that Dano learned to sing and play piano for this role by keeping Dano completely in the camera frame during the musical performance of “God Only Knows”.
Neither lead performances are mimicking each other. It mostly works if you can get over the mental hurdle that Cusack lacks resemblance to either Paul Dano or Brian Wilson. There are nuances in Cusack’s mannerism that come off very naturally which shows how well he studied his subject.
Casting more than one actor to play a famous musician was also done in “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan which had a surreal, whimsical quality. In Love & Mercy, the tone is much more straight up, except for a few scenes like during Wilson’s auditory hallucinations.
Brian Wilson is a musical genius who is deaf in one ear. He hasn’t born with a deaf ear, his father physically abused him. That pattern of abuse is shown in both eras. Wilson was a prisoner of his mind as well as physically. During the 80’s, Wilson’s legal guardian and therapist named Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) controlled so many aspects of his life. The script does a good job showing Wilson was ripe for exploitation and abuse.
There are some interesting differences between Wilson’s father and Dr. Landy. Despite his father failing him on so many levels, Wilson still had this longing for his daddy’s approval. But while Wilson’s father’s action is more terribly misguided than intentionally malice, there is no saving grace for Dr. Landy, played disturbingly well by Paul Giamatti.
The supporting performance by Elizabeth Banks as lover Melinda Ledbetter is excellent. She conveys a warm admiration, looking directly into Wilson’s creative, free soul instead of being alarmed by his outward eccentricity. Banks is also great at capturing Ledbetter’s understated inner strength when a lesser person might have deferred judgement and power to an authoritative doctor.
Contrasting the era in which Wilson was under control by Dr. Landy against his creative peak in the 60’s helps elevate Love & Mercy into a feature film rather than a straight forward TV movie of the week. As a huge fan of Pet Sounds, I had previously read a lot about the creative process and the stories behind how that album got made. Love & Mercy does a very good job at incorporating many details without it coming off as a check list of facts to convey. One of the biggest takeaways is how Wilson is ahead of the times. His goal wasn’t to be avant-garde or break the rules, he just happened to in the process of capturing the music that played in his head.
As much as I’ve talked about the many positives, I can’t say I love this film. It could be because I’ve already known quite a bit about the Pet Sound era that it didn’t fascinate me to learn about it again. And while both Dano and Cusack sympathetically portray Wilson, they didn’t capture my imagination in the way that I hoped. The feeling of listening to Pet Sounds or Good Vibrations for the first time is an incredible experience and it would be difficult to capture that in a biopic. The music is brilliant, hopefully a new generation of fans can discover that for themselves.
Love & Mercy is a good film that falls short of being a great, powerful one. This Brian Wilson biopic doesn’t dwell on the narrative about the rise and fall of a musical genius who lost his mind, it appropriately focuses on two defining eras in his life: discovering the true love who saved him and the creative head space he was in while making a masterpiece. Good vibrations indeed.