When push comes to shove, I prefer the overall discography of The Beatles more than that of The Beach Boys. That said, I still think Pet Sounds in my personal opinion, a far superior album to Sgt. Pepper. I love the craziness and strangeness of the so called masterpiece of The Beatles and A Day in the Life is certainly one of their best, but there’s something in the quality and the noises Wilson brought together in the entirety of Pet Sounds that feels so pure and beautiful. Wouldn’t it be Nice is one of the most hopeful and charming pop songs ever written and Caroline No is a mesmerizing plea to a lost love. There’s a gentle glow around every track that has hypnotized and will continue to hypnotize music lovers for decades to come. It’s one of my favorites and as a whole; The Beach Boys is one of my favorite groups of all time.
So maybe it’s not a surprise that I adored Love & Mercy, a bold, new biopic reflecting on the life of Beach Boys singer and songwriter Brian Wilson. And it’s not just my loyalty to the music that left me stunned afterwards. It’s also writer and director Bill Pohlad’s deep and ambitious look into the mind of a deeply troubled but brilliant artist and his struggle to express himself. This movie works in the way that it manages to highlight everything about Pet Sounds and there later music in the 60’s that has made it so magical to listen to for generations. This movie goes to places far beyond your average biopic and it becomes something that is ultimately quite powerful.
It’s not rare in biopics to see actors playing different parts of a person’s life. In both The Imitation Game and American Sniper, we got see bits and pieces of the main character when they were a child, that’s not something that’s new and original. What is original is the level here to which Love & Mercy takes that idea.
The movie is split up between two different periods in the life of Wilson and he is played by two different actors. In the mid 60’s, a younger Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) has suffered a nervous breakdown and has decided to stay at home and write Pet Sounds instead of touring with the other members of band. In the 80’s, an older, quieter Brian Wilson (John Cusack) is growing increasingly mentally unstable as his doctor (Paul Giamatti) continues to manipulate and abuse him. It’s seems as though all is lost until he meets a car saleswoman named Linda (Elizabeth Banks) who begins to change his life around.
First off, regardless of the screenplay, the entire cast does a great job. One of the reasons I assume nobody does this concept with a biopic is that it can possibly come off as distracting. The people involved walked a fine line in getting two performances that come off as the same character. Luckily, Cusack and Dano are both delivering top notch work here and the part gives them room to show what they’re both capable of. Kind of like Willis and Levitt in Looper, both of them manage to deliver very memorable and different performances all while managing to feel like they’re playing the same person.
Dano gets to play Wilson when he’s more energetic and eccentric and in terms of accuracy, Dano probably takes the cake between the two. Besides looking almost identical to a younger Wilson here, he talks exactly like him and he has a voice to match it. When you’re watching a lot of music biopics, most of the time they try to cover up the fact that the actor doesn’t have the musical chops to play that sort of person, not with Dano. Whenever you’re hearing him perform songs for Pet Sounds in the studio, he sounds extremely accurate and he doesn’t struggle to deliver the same notes with the amount of quality you would expect from Wilson. Honestly, I probably couldn’t tell you the difference between Wilson’s voice and Dano’s voice if I didn’t know which was which. After years of doing stellar work in supporting roles, Paul Dano finally gets the chance to shine with this intense and sympathetic performance. There’s this one scene where he has just been dissed by his awful excuse of a father and you’re just watching him react quietly in hidden sorrow after the conversation. This shot of Wilson in tears has no dialogue and it only goes on for 20 seconds but it packs more emotion and depth than Redmayne’s entire performance as Hawking in The Theory of Everything. He nails those quiet moments that shows the odd quirks of the man but he also hits those intense moments where his mental state is getting to him in a way that is genuinely disturbing to sit through. His most iconic performance might still be in There Will Be Blood, but this has to be his most nuanced and daring performance to date.
And yet for as fantastic as Dano was, Cusack matched him with this hidden, lonely portrayal of Wilson at a really dark time in his life. At this time, Wilson was pretty much a shadow of the person he used to be and he was hiding somewhere behind his severe mental illnesses. In what could’ve been a very false and over the top portrayal of mental illnesses, Cusack is dead on not only in his portrayal of Wilson, but also of someone who is suffering with the deeply rooted problems within that have left him quiet and reserved. As opposed to Dano’s song filled and at times loud performance, Cusack gives a much more silent and subtle performance, and it’s all the better for it. Cusack delivers every line with an aching, beautiful soul that makes you want to see this man rise up and get his sh*t together. Cusack is so sympathetic in every scene he’s in that there were several moments where I almost started to tear up at how well he was able to portray true loneliness and loss in a human being. In one scene Wilson is begging for Linda not to leave him and it’s downright heartbreaking to watch. If this was a fall release, I guarantee there would be way more talk about this getting him an Oscar nomination for this.
Elizabeth Banks doesn’t have as much to work off of in comparison to the two leads, but she does the best with what she’s given and this is also the first time I can say I’ve been impressed by a performance she has given. In one of the rare faults of this movie, I was a little disappointed to see Giamatti playing yet another manipulative antagonist who is keeping an artist from going to their full potential. He’s played this character numerous times before and it’s a shame to see him getting type casted like this. Regardless, the script and Giamatti’s performance manages to make the role seem different despite how overused the cliché may seem.
The film manages to take music that we’ve all heard numerous times before and make it feel new and the director and the composer makes us see the music in a way we’ve never thought about before. There was a Q&A after my screening with the films acclaimed composer Atticus Ross. He mentioned briefly how he had access to all these unreleased versions of songs when he was making the soundtrack and the way he uses that here is sort of astounding. Not only does the film give you this compelling look into how Wilson was building the noises and the areas of these songs, you’re also hearing how this music was literally built from the dreams and visions of Brian Wilson. Bits and pieces of his music will be playing over scenes and it’s clear that this is supposed to be what is going on inside his head. In a surreal scene near the end, different versions of Wilson see each other all while this stunning composition of various sounds of music of The Beach Boys is playing over it. Go figure, you can make a music biopic and you can use their music to dive deep into their brain without it feeling forced or obvious in intention.
I was quite taken by the visual style by Wes Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Much as he did in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Yeoman uses the visual look to create a sense of this time period that is lost. The look of the 60’s here is bright and colorful as though shot through the lens of a camera from that era. This definitely plays in contrast to the raw, normal look of the 80’s when the magic and energy of Wilson’s life was all but gone. All the technical areas are used excellently here to show you the evolution and the thoughts of Wilson over these two very different periods of time in his life.
Beyond what’s already been said here, the movie is a tale of man finding the voice he didn’t have even when he was making some of the biggest music in the world. Something that has always struck about Brian Wilson in comparison to other famous music leads like David Bowie or Mick Jagger or even John Lennon was his lack of stage presence. He has never seemed comfortable to be the one making the jokes and being the big star. Often, he was overshadowed by Mike Love, the louder and far less talented member of The Beach Boys who takes every chance he can to act like a total ass whether it is in his speech at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or in his general arrogance when it comes to the part he played in making the music. Anyways, the big thing about the film is that he was this brilliant musician who was constantly overpowered and abused by people louder and more outgoing than him. His father abused him and cheated him out of the band and Mike Love hated his music. When it wasn’t that, his doctor used him to make money and rely on him for everything. He was a tragic yet deeply intelligent artist who was never able to find happiness.
The true and unfiltered joy of watching this comes in his relationship to Linda. For once in his life, he finds someone who is able to understand him and speak for him and love him and the film ends up being about Brian Wilson learning to live again. It’s a movie about a misunderstood and lost soul and their journey through their connection with another human being to a place of peace and comfort that they were denied for so many decades. In that way, Love & Mercy through all of its heartbreaking and disturbing moments ends up being one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen in years. Through the dialogue, through the characters and certainly through the performances you’re watching this likable, different person and you’re rooting for him to find comfort in his life and when he finally finds it within the incredible final shot played to Wouldn’t it be Nice, I was this close to crying tears of absolute joy.
Love & Mercy couldn’t have been a more perfect portrayal of the life of an artist and it has set the bar high for the rest of SIFF. In terms of problems I had, the dialogue stumbles just a few times and as I said, Paul Giamatti plays the same role he’s played numerous times before, but everything else more than makes up for those minor nitpicks. The performances are wonderful and the decisions made to interpret Brian Wilson’s life paid off in an amazing fashion. Above all else, Love & Mercy is a beautiful film about one man’s exploration of what it truly means to be alive.
Release Date: 6/5/2015
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel and Joanna Going
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Screenplay by: Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner