Biopics give us the vicarious thrill of experiencing the life of a
real-life famous, powerful, talented or inspiring person. Rarely does
the experience evoke an overwhelming sense of pity for that individual,
but such is the case with "Love & Mercy," the side-by-side telling of
two challenging periods in the life of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson.
Bill Pohlad, who has produced a handful of powerful dramas ("Brokeback Mountain," "12 Years A Slave," "The Tree of Life"), steps in front of the camera for the first time in nearly 25 years to tell Wilson's story, and he does so with the utmost sensitivity and a powerful reverence for the history involved.
That level of respect starts with the script from Oren Moverman ("The Messenger," "Rampart") and Michael A. Lerner. Wilson's story bursts with potential for melodrama this is the guy who allegedly spent two years lying in bed abusing drugs, food and alcohol. Yet the film limits the scope of Wilson's life to these two windows of time and leaves many of the most difficult moments to the imagination, with scant references to these things both visually and in some dialogue.
What results is a look at the more tender and fragile moments of Wilson's life yet also some of the most optimistic. In the 1960s time period, we see Wilson played by Paul Dano as he begins to assert his creative role in the Beach Boys and develop the innovative music that would become the esteemed "Pet Sounds" album. In the '80s time period, we meet John Cusack's Wilson, a man-child under the care of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), whose relationship to Wilson becomes threatened when Wilson meets and falls for Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Dano and Cusack absolutely bust their molds with their performances. Dano, who usually plays frankly unlikable pricks, captures a complex portrait of Wilson at such a critical juncture in his life. He's going against the grain of the band and of his stern and crusty father and sits on the precipice of one of the greatest musical achievements and nervous breakdown. He is both self-assured and completely rattled and it works.
Cusack gets a Wilson on the (slow) rebound. He's making a personal connection with another person after years of self-abuse, yet he's still in the Landy's manipulative clutches. He's half human, really, but Cusack gives him such softness as he slowly comes back in touch with his autonomy. Banks doesn't get much depth as Melinda, but she's a strong and likable character.
Music fans might be a little let down that this film doesn't exactly feature a robust Beach Boys soundtrack. Instead, we get little samples of many of the "Pet Sounds" hits, enough of a taste to remember the magic of these songs but not so much that they distract from Wilson's story. These songs have positive associations for people, which clashes with Wilson's reality in so many ways.
Alternatively, the the way the film realistically depicts the "Pet Sounds" recording sessions and gives a glimpse into that creative process through the lens of era- appropriate cameras is something really special that musical minds will really appreciate. There is a true glimpse into the what it's like recording an album and what made Wilson a genius.
"Love & Mercy" could definitely use more compelling drama at times, and its dual timelines stunts the narrative flow and provides a share of challenges for the audience, which must make connections between the two, but the sensitivity and the desire to let the film stand as a portrait of a man rather than craft it into a Hollywood drama creates a really moving, empathetic experience for the viewer.
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