Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson was the creative engine and guiding spirit of The Beach Boys, and he's also arguably more deserving of a biographical film than any other American rock musician this side of Dylan or Presley. Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, does an honest day's work in telling Wilson's story by telling two stories: Wilson in the 1960's (played by Paul Dano) taking his music and his bandmates in ever more baroque directions as mental illness sets in, and Wilson in the 1980's (John Cusack) when under the control of the psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 1960's scenes begin with a splash of California sun, as The Beach Boys (who weren't surfers) promote their early hits and Brian experiences a breakdown that causes him to stop touring. When Brian retreats into the studio - he's creating the Pet Sounds album to keep pace with The Beatles - Love & Mercy encounters the challenge common to all biographical films about artists. How does one dramatize creativity? The film (scripted by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner) comes up with an answer that works.

There's a cliche about relative amounts of inspiration and perspiration that Love & Mercy uses to its advantage. For every shot of Brian with arms outstretched and waiting to hear the call of his muse there are five shots of him working with studio musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head. The film doesn't shy away from the start-and-stop-and-try again process of recording, and in my favorite shot Pohlad travels through the studio while Wilson works with two musicians to show the tedium that his perfectionism could create. (The script also clearly states that the other Beach Boys had nothing to offer musically except their voices.) That tedium proves too much for singer Mike Love (Jake Abel), who wants the band to return to its earlier poppy style after Pet Sounds sales go flat. Love's commercialism is presented as an irritant to Wilson, but the emotional and physical abuse Wilson suffered at the hands of his father (Bill Camp) did real damage. Camp plays Murry Wilson as a self-absorbed monster who never let go of his resentment of Brian, and the script makes their relationship a major issue in Brian's slow breakdown. Paul Dano's performance as Brian is a tricky job of navigation, since Wilson was as in conflict with his own mind as he was with those around. The doughy, sensitive man Dano plays here is a long way from the firebrand preacher whose milkshake got drunk in There Will be Blood. Dano is completely convincing as both a genius and man losing touch with himself.

The 1980's scenes of Love & Mercy are a touching but more conventional arc of recovery and redemption given life by the performances of John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks. The overmedicated 1980's Wilson is a long way from the highly verbal, darkly funny men we're used to seeing Cusack play, but he's more than up to the task of portraying how out of touch Wilson must have seemed to those around him. In the film's telling Wilson is saved by falling in love with Melinda (Banks), a woman he meets (and would later marry) while car shopping. Melinda is a conventional role given shading thanks to Banks's personality, it's she who helps Wilson free himself from the predatory Landy. We perceive Melinda only in terms of how she feels about and reacts to Wilson, but she and Cusack have an easy rhythm together and Cusack beautifully underplays his surprise at both loving and being loved. The scenes with Landy, who is written and played by Giamatti with no subtlety, might have worked better if we saw how their relationship started - the men met during Wilson's dark 1970's - but then that would have been a different film. I could have done without a dream sequence near the end that too neatly restates what has come before, but that's quibbling. Love & Mercy honors its subject by telling Brian Wilson's story with as much light and darkness as the music he made.

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