Love and Mercy (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language
Running Time: 121 min.

Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Erin Darke, Jake Abel, Dee Wallace
Director: Bill Pohlad
Screenplay: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner

Review published June 9, 2015

Love and Mercy, which takes its name from the first track on Brian Wilson's first solo album in 1988, is a biopic on Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind many of the Beach Boys greatest and most critically acclaimed hits.  It's a tale told in two parts, one being the days of the late 1960s in which Wilson, here played by Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), would quite live touring to spend his days in the studio to make the ambitious albums "Pet Sounds" and the defunct Smile almost singlehandedly, and the other taking place in the 1980s, when Wilson, played in these scenes by John Cusack (The Bag Man, Grand Piano), would be kept under the tight scrutiny of Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti, Madame Bovary), who had been treating the reclusive and troubled artist for paranoid schizophrenia. Wilson's most creative period was also his most troubled, as his mental illness allowed him to draw out styles and sounds unheard of in any recording to date, but also affected his personal life to the point of disaster.  His later years were characterized by his subservience to his doctor, who controlled every aspect of his life, and Wilson's budding romance with a Los Angeles car salesperson named Melinda Ledbetter (Banks, Pitch Perfect 2), who thinks he is being manipulated and overmedicated.

Bill Pohlad (Old Explorers) brilliantly directs Love and Mercy with a special emphasis on sound.  This is especially important to highlight, as sounds are the thing that made Brian Wilson a genius, but it would also be the thing that would eventually make him go mad.  Pohlad employs a rather unique approach.  Whereas most musical biopics depict the rise and fall of a great artist, Love and Mercy displays both simultaneously in two different eras.  Wilson's peak creatively would also mark the beginning of his nadir personally as a younger man, while we encounter him later having gotten better than the worst part of his life, where he wallowed in a bed-ridden and drug-addled state for nearly three years, but also growing worse as he gets better due to relying too much on the control of a doctor that may not have had his best interests at heart.  It's a story about a man who wrestled with control of his environment as he also began to lose control of himself, while in his later years, trying to find control of himself again as someone else controlled all aspects of his environment.

This unique approach gives us far more shades of who Brian Wilson might truly be than as a mere collection of personal and professional milestones, delving more into a character study of the man as an artist, philosopher, and person who tries to find the capability to love again.  It also gives us much more meaning to the music than most biopics of its ilk, being much more a look the artistic meaning to each composition and how driven Wilson had been to realize the perfectionist dream of the things he had in his mind, while also eschewing the legion of fan worship that frequently is a part of such stories -- we never see the mobs of groupies that surely would follow a group like The Beach Boys around. It's a film about the making of great music more so than a look at personal achievements that such music brought upon those who made it.

Period detail is superb, from the use of old tech equipment, to the fashion (I love the eyeglasses), to the vehicles, though it is never ostentatious -- it even (mercifully) keeps some of the slang to a minimum.  Another interesting style is the use of retro-vision color and light palette for the scenes in the 1960s, having that slightly grainy, analog camera feel, just as if these scenes had been shot at the time of its setting.  It really does feel like they're there sometimes.  But, truly, like Wilson's works themselves, it's the use of sounds, and their editing in to create mood and meaning, where Pohlad's film really shine, not only in its use of music, but also in the clicking, clanging, and mixing of cacophonic collage into the times when Wilson begins to have episodes of hearing things that aren't really there.

I'd be remiss if I didn't praise the acting in this film, even if the roles might be cited as miscast, perhaps even across the board.  Dano and Cusack looks very little alike, after all, and certainly Cusack looks nothing like the real Brian Wilson, a fact that will be all the more glaring as we see the actual Brian Wilson in a live concert performance as the closing credits roll.  However, that shouldn't take away from one of Cusack's best performances in many years, and if you can suspend your disbelief that the veteran actor is Wilson in spirit if not in body, the movie will work wonderfully.  Dano does resemble a younger Wilson quite well, even going so far as to put on weight learn to play piano, and do his own singing in some scenes to play the part.  Supporting players Giamatti and Banks are equally commanding, both fierce in their own ways, but Giamatti in particular earns a special kind of kudos for treading the line between benevolent and menacing in a way in which you're never quite sure if there's a method to his madness in his methods of curing madness.

Beach Boys fans will no doubt be ecstatic at seeing what amounts to a simulated behind the scenes look at the making of their greatest album, Pet Sounds, which has been a critical success, but a commercial misfire, causing much consternation among the group as to whether to continue to indulge Brian for his complex, visionary tinkering with their simple, defined sound. Misunderstood to some degree at the time (the "Pet Sounds" diamond cut, "God Only Knows", was actually a B-side release), the work remains, to this day, one of the great masterworks of rock 'n' roll history.

Love & Mercy isn't so much an anthology as it is a look at the works of a man within two distinct periods of his life.  While we don't get  the complete picture from birth to older age, but narrowing in on a couple of major shifts in Wilson's life, we get much more detail than would normally be afforded a complete arc, and, subsequently, learn so much more than we might with a collection of milestones.  By getting in close, it's like the dissection of his music, catchy pop to tap your feet to on first listen, but slow things down enough to the point where we can dissect it into parts, we can see that there's a genius behind every note.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo