Love & Mercy is directed by Bill Pohland and stars Paul Dano and Jon Cusack playing two different versions of Brian Wilson. Paul Dano embodies the passion and love of the young Brian Wilson. The one who composed Pet Sounds and other classics such as Good Vibrations, Surfin USA but, also the one whose control on reality starts to slip out of reach and the yearning for parental validation. Cusack shows us Brian Wilson trapped in another “prison” with Landy, his therapist, (monstrously brought to life by Paul Giamatti) and looking for Mercy and he finds it in the form of a used car saleswoman – Melinda.
Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner – the former the co-writer of the 2007 classic I’m Not There telling the story of Bob Dylan in unconventional fashion. Here too it works well given how unconventional and radical Brian Wilson was in his compositions especially of Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson brought a dog into the recording studio to capture the bark.
For me, the standout performance of the film is that of Paul Dano. We are used to seeing him gaunt on screen and here he is carrying a significant amount of extra weight in order to convey the contrast of young Brian Wilson and his performance is nuanced without descending into melodrama. It is his performance that allows the audience to feel love and mercy for the older Wilson (Cusack) in the second half of the film.
Why weren’t the beach boys even more successful? Perhaps because “…even the happy songs are sad” Brian’s cousin tells him. The modern Wilson is as interesting as his younger self. A lot of it shot in the 1980S and early 1990s – Elizabeth Banks does a stirling job bringing Melinda Wilson, Brian’s current wife, to screen. Her role in the film is to show the contrast between Wilson’s claustrophobic gilded world with Landy and the world outside. The scene in which Landy yanks a burger out of Wilson’s hand by telling him he isn’t hungry is frightening and demonstrative of the control he wielded over Wilson. Personally after that scene I am not sure what the need was to show further Landy scenes, although they do show just what a breath of fresh air and means of escape Melinda was at the time for Wilson and how much their trusted housekeeper means to them as she hid some of the drugs stating: “the pills are too many, they make him even more loco/crazy”.
Ultimately, film’s power is in the extraordinary way in which the recording sessions are shown on screen. Bill Pohland really captures those well and in turn showing musical genius that is Brian Wilson. His singular vision and always wanting to push through barriers. When a meeting between the Beach Boys and Brian is convened at Brian’s house he talks of his vision and plans despite the flop of Pet Sounds and one of them says: “we’re too shallow for the deep end.” Not only is that a reference to where Brian is in the pool but also a description of the band wanting to stay safe peddling shallow but commercially successful songs whilst Brian wants to show the world the real him and all the sounds playing in his head. Stay until the very end to watch the real Brian Wilson singing Love & Mercy and you’ll understand why this was the final title used for the film rather than the original title of “Heroes and Villans” attached to the original script.
This biopic is well worth watching because it is unlike any you have ever scene. It is not formulaic and deftly manages to avoid the clichés that so many biopics embrace – rags to riches etc. Furthermore, I had heard one or two Beach Boys songs, knew little about Brian Wilson and had never heard Pet Sounds. I left the screening with a burgeoning respect for Wilson and promptly started to listening to Pet Sounds. This is a film for fans and non fans alike.
Love & Mercy is released in cinemas across the UK from Friday 10 July with a running time of 121 minutes.
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