Love & Mercy
photo by Francois Duhamel
Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad’s biopic of Brian Wilson drops two talented actors into the enigmatic Beach Boys leader's troubled waters, but even their combined efforts can get only so deep.
In Love & Mercy
, Paul Dano (convincingly doughy, bright-eyed and vulnerable) plays Wilson in the ’60s, during the creation of the revolutionary album Pet Sounds
and single “Good Vibrations," as he steers his reluctant bandmates away from catchy songs about surfing, toward Beatles-challenging pop music of symphonic intricacy. He is at the top of his talents and success but already shows signs of trouble: panic attacks, withdrawal from touring and an ambition too large to be satisfied.
John Cusack (convincingly twitchy, vacant and alert) is the lost, isolated Wilson of the ’80s, a few years past his '70s nadir of bedridden addiction, now in the grips of a nefarious psychologist who subdues him with medication while Wilson interminably tinkers with a masterpiece only he can hear. He starts a halting courtship with Melinda Ledbetter (a lively, charming Elizabeth Banks), seemingly the only person around who sees psychologist Eugene Landy (played with suppressed menace by Paul Giamatti) for the controlling charlatan he is.
The movie cuts back and forth between these two periods, collecting evidence of Wilson’s downfall and its suspected causes. There is the cruel, abusive manager-father and a related crippling perfectionism; the drowning of Wilson's brother and bandmate, Dennis; the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and corrosive care of Landy; and the effects of psychedelics on the fragile psyche of someone who was already hearing unwelcome voices and overly acute sounds. But these are mainly Wikipedia-level plot points. Screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman seem more interested in the historical record than imaginative verisimilitude, and despite the movie's earnestness, a certain phoniness keeps creeping in.
The dialogue has bouts of unnatural exposition. In the recording studio, Wilson abruptly announces that the session musicians (The Wrecking Crew, recently seen in their own documentary
) are the unheralded stars, and then helpfully lists their credits. After this speech, one of the musicians, during a smoke-and-chat out back, volunteers that all of them went to conservatory. You can find a version of the latter quote in Peter Ames Carlin's biography of Wilson, Catch a Wave
, and in fact, the whole script has a footnoted feeling.
There is little candid or idle talk; if the characters aren't fleshing out the historical portrait, they're driving home a story beat. As the movie goes on, the symbolism becomes garish. In one late scene, Wilson flounders in the deep end of the swimming pool while his bandmates crouch in the shallow end. This visual metaphor might have been more graceful if one of them didn't remark upon it. And Landy, producing Wilson’s long-fermented opus, Smile
, actually yells at his cowering ward to “come into the Control Room!” Yes, we got it, thanks.
Still, the cinematography of Southern California is a dream to behold, and whenever the music swells, we forget the movie’s flaws and bask in the kaleidoscopic magnitude of Wilson’s talent, from the revved up doo-wop that made him famous to the druggy key changes and modal scales that he was then able to plug in to pop culture. Consider the singularity: A squeaky-clean teen-pop band suddenly becomes the forerunner of the psychedelic rock movement. “Who do you think you are, Mozart?” one bandmate sneers, using the usual shorthand for unattainable creative genius. But the movie leaves no doubt that's what Wilson was, especially in the recording studio that eventually swallowed him whole.
Love & Mercy
manages an upbeat coda, with Wilson marrying his avenging angel and finally releasing Smile
to critical acclaim. The real Wilson appears in a live performance during the credits, looking pretty much intact, singing the title song in a voice of undimmed innocence and beauty. But overall, this is a sad and murky story about the cost of fame and the tyranny of talent. Wilson, putting himself back together, is a hero, but he is one acting in a tragedy.
Though they formed in 1961, The Beach Boys rode out a rough transition from simple ’50s garage rock to baroque '60s British Invasion rock, lagging behind and then springing forward. Of course, this musical transition was a symptom of a deeper shift in American culture, and watching the film, we understand that it was fated to wrench these kids apart. Flat characterization aside, this makes Love & Mercy
a moving parable about the thinness of the walls between genius and madness, and how ambition can just as easily empower or stultify.