It’s easy for later generations to think of The Beach Boys as just being an old pop band that played catchy songs about surfing and girls in the sixties, I for one used to ascribe to this notion. It’s only when you really delve into their back catalogue that you realise Brian Wilson might well have been a legitimate musical genius who changed the course of what pop music could be. Wilson gets the classy biopic treatment here with Love & Mercy (named for one of his most famous solo singles), a film which focuses squarely on him, rather than the band.
Its manner of communicating his musical abilities is not to simply have characters vocalise how amazed they are at what ground-breaking work he’s doing, or to show montages of newspaper clippings or any other such familiar trends. Instead Love & Mercy just shows a young Wilson at work in the studio with a group of session musicians. The enthusiasm he radiates for his work, coupled with the musical language and improvisational openness he uses with a wide range of instrumentalists deftly demonstrate the level at which he was operating.
This is just one example of how Love & Mercy avoids so many of the pratfalls that often bog down biopics, especially musical ones. Director Bill Pohlad respects his audience enough to know that showing us Wilson composing and recording is far more effective than explicitly telling us what he’s doing. There’s also a real joy to be had in hearing the early instrumentals from Pet Sounds being conceived and developed.
It’s actually a little surprising that this film isn’t being released slap bang in the middle of awards season, Wilson’s story of musical genius and mental illness, combined with American nostalgia for the sixties seems like a perfect recipe for Oscar fodder. However the fact that it isn’t also seems appropriate due to its aforementioned unconventionality; there’s not a moment in this when I thought of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which effectively spoofed so many typical biopic tropes.
Part of this can be attributed to its decision to adopt a duel narrative; simultaneously telling Brian’s story from two distinct and important periods in his life, one in the sixties and one in the eighties. This enables us to get an effective portrait of his whole life (to that point) without unnecessary childhood scenes learning the piano or ones detailing the formation of The Beach Boys. Details involving his early life and bedridden, drug-addles seventies period are sewn into dialogue that for the most part feels natural.
In the earlier timeline, The Beach Boys are riding high off the success of their early singles, but Brian (Paul Dano) wishes to take a break from touring in order to return to the studio and record his “greatest album”. In the later one, a middle-aged Wilson is portrayed by John Cusack. Now a disturbed and confused man, he’s under the constant care of Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a therapist who commands control over almost every aspect of Wilson’s life.
This structure pulls off the tricky feat of almost completely cohering, despite the two halves being from different perspectives. The sixties timeline is from Brian’s point of view, following him as he pursues his musical ambitions which lead to tensions between him and the rest of the band, while also detailing the onset of his mental problems. The later timeline is all from the perspective of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who meets Brian at her dealership, and later develops a romance with him.
The decision to have Wilson be played by two different actors could have been a distracting mistake, especially considering that the film intertwines the two chapters rather than separating them. It’s actually never an issue though, and conclusively works to the film’s benefit in emphasising what a different man he had become. As younger Brian, Paul Dano does brilliant work in conveying both his enthusiasm and his struggles. Unlike Dano, Cusack doesn’t resemble Wilson much in the later segments, and indeed doesn’t look like Dano either, yet it never really matters. It’s good to see that Cusack can apparently break from his regular output of straight-to-video rubbish to commit to a good performance about once a year. Having two separate actors at the core also assists in preventing Love & Mercy ever feeling like a vanity project for an actor to indulge in a feature-length impersonation that the awards types love so much.
By making Elizabeth Banks the lead for the eighties segments, her role is considerably improved than if she were more of an outsider. We learn the true nature of Landry’s relationship with Brian gradually as she does; revealing Landry to be more and more of a sinister character than he initially appears. This also allows us to learn of Brian’s absent period as she does. It is the case that most of the film’s best sequences come in the earlier timeline, and there are occasions when one might wish to switch back to it rather than the tougher later one, but weaving the two together definitely makes for an overall better experience than if this had been a film of two separate halves, with Pohlad still sidestepping the need to make tenuous connections between the timelines.
Most important to telling Brian Wilson’s story though, is of course his music. Thankfully, Love & Mercy has the rights to every song it needs. It never overemphasises them or indulges in lengthy musical montages, but instead gives you just the right amount to remind you how good they are. Seeing the genesis of songs that would become stone-cold classics is something Pohlad always handles delicately – one absolute standout scene involves Dano playing ‘God Only Knows’ for the first time as the camera pans around him, only to reveal his Father being distinctly unimpressed with this new composition. I know that there are occasions when the Dano himself is singing and other times when he’s lip-synching to Wilson’s existing recording but there are never any obvious transitions between the two.
Love & Mercy does occasionally succumb to giving the audience bits of exposition and melodrama, but overall is a fantastic portrait of Brian Wilson through his talents and trials that avoids most of the inherent clichés found in biopics. Ultimately it’s quite an uplifting movie, which could gain Wilson new respect from those possessing only a passing familiarity with his music. I can say this much, the first thing I did when I got home from the cinema was to put on Pet Sounds.