The Films of 2015: Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad’s new film Love and Mercy, which a title credit tells us is “based on the life of Brian Wilson,” is a valiant attempt to do a music biopic that sidesteps the clichés of the genre.  And it mostly succeeds: even those (like myself) with no prior knowledge of Wilson’s story and only the most general level of familiarity with the music of the Beach Boys will find much to enjoy and appreciate here. 

Structurally, Love and Mercy tries to avoid the conventional star narrative of rise-fall-recovery by scrambling the pieces of the story.  Pohlad, working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman, cuts deftly back and forth between two different periods of Wilson’s life.  In scenes set in the mid-to-late 1960s, Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, meets resistance from his bandmates and family members when his songwriting becomes subtler and his artistic vision more ambitious than his surf-rock persona will allow.  (His father and manager, who pressures him to keep churning out bubblegum-flavored chart-toppers, calls “God Only Knows” lugubrious and morbid; his cousin and fellow band member Mike Love dismisses other lyrics as nonsensical, subversive, or both.)  As the band records Pet Sounds and breaks ground on what would become the doomed follow-up project Smile, Wilson’s psyche begins to fray.  The film’s other half, set in the late 1980s, finds the forty-year-old Wilson (now played by John Cusack) under the thumb of another controlling father figure, psychiatrist Eugene Landy.  Every aspect of Wilson’s life is dictated by the abusive and manipulative Landy until Melinda Ledbetter, the car saleswoman with whom Wilson has fallen in love, makes it her mission to free him.   

If Love and Mercy’s bifurcated structure solves some of the problems of the biopic, it creates some others.  Although the film’s transitions are mostly graceful, it’s difficult to see its halves as two pieces of the same story.  (The Hours suffered from a similar problem.)  But the two stories are compelling enough that even this doesn’t matter.  It’s a pleasure to see so many talented actors working so confidently together, especially in the 1980s scenes, which very nearly steal the film.  As moving as Paul Dano is as the younger Brian  (and he really shines in the recording-studio scenes, which have an improvisatory looseness, like a lost Pennebaker documentary), Cusack may be even better.  Better still are Paul Giamatti as the monstrous Dr. Landy and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, who brings both warmth and strength to what might have been an utterly forgettable part.  In her scenes with Cusack, she’s the one we’re watching, even when all she’s doing is listening.  Banks becomes our point of identification in the 1980s scenes, which means that she’s asked to carry that half of the film, and she does so effortlessly.  The pleasures of watching her in this quietly powerful role are just as intense as the classic songs that make up the film’s soundtrack, all of which are used to good effect.  (Pohlad finds the perfect place for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”)  Come for the music; stay for the performances.

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