A deeply satisfying pop biopic whose subject’s bifurcated creative life lends itself to an unconventional structure, Bill Pohlad‘s Love & Mercy spends time with Brian Wilson both while his mental illness was a storm gathering on the Beach Boys‘ horizon and years later, as he tried to break away from a doctor who was using that illness to control his life. Balancing the emotionally involving drama in that later story with the thrilling musical creation in the earlier one, the picture would be exciting even if all it offered was the vision of Paul Dano‘s Wilson guiding musicians through the creation of Pet Sounds; but as the older Wilson, John Cusack gives one of the best performances of his career, its effectiveness limited only by his lack of a physical resemblance to the songwriter. That will be a stumbling block for some fans, but those who can get beyond it will find a very fine film about a singular artist.
Superb editing by Dino Jonsater clicks back and forth between the mid Sixties and the point in the Eighties when Wilson met Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the woman who would become his second wife; transitions between time periods often feel abrupt for a second or two, cutting short a scene we’re still involved in, before the rightness of the leap becomes clear.
Wilson meets Melinda in a car dealership where she’s a salesperson. Clearly taken with her on first sight, he makes some uncomfortable emotional revelations before she even knows the older man flirting with her was a Beach Boy. Before he can ask her out, his handlers have stepped in: Aggressively chatty Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who we’ll later learn is Wilson’s personal physician and legal guardian, whisks him away. When the two do start dating, Landy is there either in person or by proxy, in the form of a “bodyguard” who reports back to him. Banks is as keenly alert as an animal sensing predators when Landy summons her to his office, smarmily explaining his role in Wilson’s recovery, the importance of the medications he prescribes, and his need for her to report to him the details of their time together.
We meet Dano’s version of Wilson just as he’s asking for permission to stay home while the band tours in Japan. “I can take us further … at home,” he insists, saying he has ideas for intricately produced music that will make the Beatles’ just-released Revolver sound like an also-ran. Soon he’s jamming a small studio with ace instrumentalists known as the Wrecking Crew, walking them through arrangements that sound wrong until they prove inspired. In a touching moment, drummer Hal Blaine reassures the wunderkind, reminding him that the musicians in that room have worked with every star there is, and that he’s knocking them all out. “Phil Spector‘s got nothin’ on you,” he says, knowing this is the biggest praise he could possibly offer.
But Blaine’s opinion only matters so much. If Wilson’s midlife was the property of a controlling doctor, he grew up in fear of an abusive father. In a scene that is transcendent until it is heartbreaking, Dano sits alone at a piano to play a new tune called “God Only Knows.” One of pop’s most aching love songs starts nervously, slowly finding its footing as the camera rotates around Wilson to see his unimpressed father on the couch behind him. “I don’t care for it,” says the man who will later sell Wilson’s music rights away for under a million dollars, congratulating himself on the deal because “five years from now no one is going to remember you or the Beach Boys.”
Dano’s reactions in these scenes contain a world of pain, with the songwriter’s incipient mental illness dovetailing with abuse and the failure of those closest to him to appreciate his gifts. Mike Love, his cousin and bandmate, second-guesses every step of Pet Sounds, wondering if lyrics are drug references and complaining that “even the happy songs are sad.” (He’s right on the latter point, but wrong that it’s a flaw.) But while Dano’s Wilson battles enemies both physical and internal, his eyes evince a continued belief in the music in his head. The movie does a fine job of using our familiarity with the finished product to electrify the hours of tedious retakes and overdubbing that were required to achieve it. It’s almost not fair to show Love complaining about Wilson’s perfectionist coaching of cellists in search of the perfect “chukita-chukita” sound for “Good Vibrations”: We already know he was right.
As Wilson falls in love with Ledbetter, Landy sees the threat and removes her from his life. (Giamatti’s controlling, calculating villainy is an inch shy of too thick.) Leave it to scholars of Beach Boys lore to evaluate the way screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner distill the long, complicated timeline in which courts eventually removed Wilson from Landy’s custody; since this film views Ledbetter as the catalyst of Wilson’s recovery (they married in 1995 and remain together), it emphasizes her role in gathering evidence of Landy’s misconduct. Cusack gives plenty of reason for rescue, with scenes in which the man’s desire for a healthy relationship is overwhelmed by a childlike fear of his domineering caretaker.
Unlike most music biographies, this one has no real interest in showing its hero performing for adoring crowds. It understands Wilson’s desire to “play the studio,” making perfect records instead of living off the energy of an audience. It never needs to explain how well suited the artist’s particular gifts were to the anxieties that crippled the man.
Production companies: River Road Entertainment, Battle Mountain Films
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad
Screenwriters: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
Producers: Bill Pohlad, Claire Rudnick Polstein, John Wells
Executive producers: Ann Ruark, Jim Lefkowitz, Oren Moverman
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Keith Cunningham
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Music: Atticus Ross
No rating, 120 minutes