Love & Mercy, 2015.
Directed by Bill Pohlad.
Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti.
In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
Good Vibrations. God Only Knows. Surfin’ USA. Just three of the songs that brought The Beach Boys to prominence and subsequent super stardom back in the swinging 60’s. They toured the world, sold millions of albums and sent many a woman weak at the knees. But while it was the group that was soaking up the stardom, it was one of the brothers in the group, Brian Wilson, whowas slowly emerging as the “one to watch” – the one whose innovations would change pop music more than once. But if you’re expecting the “True Hollywood Story” version of his success, you may find a surprise in store in Bill Pohlad’s wonderful film.
Love & Mercy is, like it’s subject, a unique piece of work that takes the musician biopic and gives it an almighty remould into a film that feels much more intimate and ultimately more moving than many of those previous films. That’s not to discourage the great work of Walk the Line and Ray over recent years, but like with any genres there is always room for manoeuvre, for stretching and reconstructing around its subject. Brian Wilson’s work and life has impacted on many who have listened to his work and followed his subsequent struggles, but rather than dwell on too much of his life thus far, director Pohlad and writer Oren Moverman (who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There) switch focus to two important moments in the artist’s life.
We see the Beach Boys – era Brian Past (Dano) when the group were at the height of their powers, and Brian at his creative peak, eager to explore music beyond what the band and their fans wanted. He found solace and peace whilst making music, after wrestling with a detonating relationship with his father, and was easily one the world’s top musical creators of the time. Beyond what others were capable of – he went on to create the album Pet Sounds – and reluctant to tour with the band instead wanting to create rather than replicate what had gone before. Slowly, his anxieties and angst start to creep in as he begins question his creative abilities. Flash forward to the 80’s and Brian Future (Cusack) is a changed man: under the watchful but questionable eye of Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti), his demons have begun their ferocious journey through his very core, causing various mental and physical changes from the man he once was. But his first signs of a new life, a new solace come in the form of Melinda (Banks), a local car saleswoman who may be able to pull Brian back from the brink.
With the change in narrative choices made by Pohlad and co, Love & Mercy is able to flit between the two parts of Wilson’s life seamlessly so that you feel like you are getting more than it seems. We delve deeper into the person (and indeed people) that Wilson was, what truly moved him, inspired and ultimately provided salvation for him. Anchored by two performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack (try if you might to figure out who would get what Oscar nods should the situation arise) that are perfectly performed: Dano’s wistful, energetic Brian Past is a hurricane of positive energy and creative hutzspah before his descent down the proverbial rabbit hole; while Cusack’s quiet, retreated Brian Future is a cracked shell of a man who wants to break free from his hellish existence and puncture its walls with ideas he just can’t reach for. Both actors are wonderful and both are arguably the best they have ever been. Add to the mix the luminous presence of Elizabeth Banks and the quiet (well, not so quiet here), steady authority of the ever-brilliant Paul Giamatti and you have a collection of the year’s finest work.
Pohlad’s use of colour and sound merge beautifully throughout, almost pouring Brian’s inner essence onto the screen while being bathed in the sultry luminations of California, always blazing and golden in the background thanks to the stellar work of director of photography Robert Yeoman. It’s hard to pick any false “notes” in the film, but the odd few that mainly come from those expecting something more predictable as a biopic: we only see glimpses of many things, whether it’s a more detailed look within the workings of Landy or Wilson’s first marriage, the latter not given much time at all sadly. Indeed there is very little of the “glitz and glam” that the band’s success brought them here, but this is not their story, it’s Wilson’s. And with such a rich mind as it’s canvas, the decision to explore his genius in a different way is rewarded with one of the most moving and thoughtful films of the year. Good Vibrations indeed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★