Love & Mercy, 2015.
Directed by Bill Pohlad.
Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti.
A biopic of Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, entwining two significant parts of his life – at the height of his creative output in the 60s and his mis-diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia two decades later.
Is…is that Mark Kermode? The BBC’s lead film critic, author of many a book, embarker of many a radio tirade? The light in the Soho Screening Room’s ground floor theatre was low, but that could only be one man’s silver quiff.
Somehow, even after attending scores of press screenings over the years, I’ve never found myself in the same cinema as The Kermode. Others have tales abundant; me, a solitary anecdote where I awkwardly posed for a selfie on the BAFTA red carpet. He pouted. It was a brief, hollow encounter.
This is a perfect film for him, I thought, aware of how stalkery my mind was being. He plays in a band, he loves his music. His favourite film from a few years ago was the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations. This is the perfect film for him.
He seemed to like the opening montage. Or, at least, I imagined he did. The 60s setting was shot perfectly, expertly capturing the era’s grain, its soft outlines, its primary colours. The occasional, sudden over-exposure transitioned scenes; Beach Boys music warmed the room.
Paul Dano kind of looks like a half-remembered, young Brian Wilson with his hair like that. He also looks like a quarter-remembered, young John Cusack. Whether that means John Cusack looks like a one-eighth-remembered middle-aged Wilson, though, is something else entirely. But the physicality is there.
Dano and Cusack play young and old Wilson, respectively. Both walk with their hands unmoving, held straight by their sides. You’d think that would would make their performances rigid, weighed down by an overbearing father and alcoholic mother; but it doesn’t. Rather, they float in an otherworldly way, as though Wilson bobs in water rather than walks on ground.
Of the two, if it were a competition, Dano just takes it. The romantic stuff between Cusack’s Wilson and Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter is endearing enough, but it has nothing on Dano writing Pet Sounds. As impressively dramatic as the late-80s era is, it makes you fidgety. Sure, Ledbetter and Wilson’s blossoming romance is cute, and Dr. Eugene Landy’s (Paul Giamatti) manipulation of them abhorrent, but Dano is writing one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s a tough act to follow, let alone intercut with.
That’s what the film tries to do structurally, jumping between 60s and 80s Wilsons with subtle links (sometimes non-existent). The ambition is admirable, but it falls short – even when it boldly attempts a 2001/Slaughterhouse 5 hallucination sequence to tie them both together. Instead, Dano’s storyline feels underdeveloped and left hanging, while Cusack’s lacks the intrigue of the Beach Boys’ creative process. If anything, the Cusack parts are actually Banks’ plot, the story told from her perspective, and thus, a bystander.
To bring things full circle, and to make that opening tangent not look too out of place, Kermode always cites the ‘magic of the first listen’ as to what makes a good musical biopic; the look on everyone’s faces when they hear that track. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys failed miserably. Good Vibrations does it in every other scene. Love & Mercy lies in between. Most of the film drones in comparison to its Pet Sounds sequences. But when they sing, each one of your vertabrae becomes a jangling piano string from the beginning of ‘You Still Believe In Me’. And it’s worth it just for that.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★