Paul Dano invests the younger Brian Wilson with focused ecstasy, especially during his creation of the landmark album, Pet Sounds.
Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad. On screens around New England.
By Ken Bader
The challenge of making a film about Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson is to be true to the subject without being trite. The problem is that nearly each of Brian Wilson’s personae smacks of biopic cliche, and there are several cliche traps. First, there’s the young Wilson seeking to escape from his abusive father yet longing for his approval. Then, there’s Wilson as a fragile soul who, as he wrote, “just wasn’t made for these times.” More cliche fodder: the brilliant musician caught between commercial pressures and artistic ambitions, the tormented genius who falls prey to drugs, the lost man saved by the love of a good woman.
Mercifully, director Bill Pohlad averts these pitfalls in Love & Mercy by burrowing in on two key passages in Wilson’s life: the mid-’60s, when Wilson was at his creative peak, and the mid-’80s, after bipolar schizoaffective disorder had decimated his spirit and his muse.
Paul Dano plays the young and enthusiastic Wilson of the ’60s, and John Cusack is the dazed and confused Wilson of the ’80s. (Given Wilson’s obsessive competitiveness with the Beatles, I wonder how he took the news that he’d be played by actors named John and Paul.)
Dano invests the younger Wilson with focused ecstasy, especially when Brian is creating the landmark album, Pet Sounds. The otherwise pedestrian camera work comes alive in these scenes, racing around the recording studio, channeling Wilson’s restless energy, catching up with the musicians as they catch up with Wilson’s musical vision. For example, on the band’s first stab at recording “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Wilson intuits a missing beat and guides the drummer to fill it. Sure enough, the next take has the magic. This is no Hollywood over-simplification but an accurate re-enactment of the actual session.
The ’80s narrative is less gripping, and not only because its protagonist is a shell of his former self. John Cusack nails the halting speech rhythms of the middle-aged Wilson, but doesn’t dig deep enough to capture the man’s severely damaged psyche. The near-absence of point of view shots, the unvarying rhythm of the editing, and the thin characterization of Wilson’s lover-savior, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) cause the pace to slacken. Providing the necessary energy here is Wilson’s unscrupulous, controlling therapist, Eugene Landy. Paul Giamatti invests the mad doctor with traces of charm and sanity, making him all the more sinister.
The film’s score, specifically the interludes produced by composer Atticus Ross, deserves special mention. Wilson suffered audio hallucinations, which consisted of snatches of voices, music, and noises. Ross weaves bits of Wilson’s music to create dissonant passages that succeed, where the camera fails, in entering Wilson’s disturbed mind.
Love & Mercy ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. The film closes with a live performance of the title song by the real Brian Wilson. Another of his post-Beach Boys compositions, “Good Kind of Love,” plays over the final credits. The former tune clearly means a lot to Wilson, who often ends his concerts with it. But the song ranks well below the music we’ve been listening to for the preceding two hours. “Good Kind of Love” is a disposable ditty that unfortunately typifies much of Wilson’s recent solo work. And yet there is a frayed beauty to the song “Love and Mercy” and a bit of a Beach Boys bounce to “Good Kind of Love.” Brian Wilson may no longer be a master of the musical universe. But at 72, he’s still standing, and he’s still creating music. That strikes me as a happy ending.
Ken Bader has written film criticism for NPR, the Voice of America, and Monitor Radio.