Love & Mercy: Original but Flawed Biopic of Brian (Beach Boys) Wilson

love_&_mercy_posterStrange and unconventional, in both the positive and negative senses of these terms, Love & Mercy” is an original and unsettling (as it should be) feature, but it is also a flawed effort to capture the life and genius of Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the multi-talented musician,

As directed by Bill Pohlad and co-written by Oren Moverman (a good director in his own right) and Michael Alan Lerner, Love & Mercy benefits from its dual casting.  Unlike most screen bios, in this one, Wilson is played by two actors at different times in his career: Paul Dano in the mid-1960s and John Cusack in the mid-1980s.


love_&_mercy_4_danoNeither actor looks–or tries to look– like the real-life Wilson, and the fact that they are different performers, using different acting methods, enriches the film and may be one its strongest points.  For one thing, we are spared from watching the older Wilson in heavy makeup and fake hair.

Trying to avoid the usual pitfalls of the biopic genre, Pohlad and his writers have made a clever choice to focus on two turning points in Wilson’s life, separated by two decades or so.  The creation of his quasi-symphonic masterwork “Pet Sounds” in the mid-1960s, along with his subsequent mental breakdown, and his disastrous, dependent relationship with his manipulative doctor therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s.

love_&_mercy_3_cusack_banksThe director cuts back and forth, without any preparation or warning, between the two time periods.  The cumulative effect of this strategy should prove exciting to some critics (like me) while confusing and disturbing.

What unifies both sub-narratives is the view of Wilson as genius that was emotional displaced (and at times disoriented and alienated) during long stretches of his illustrious career.

As played by Dano, the young Wilson is a mentally troubled boy-adolescent, who’s still able to function and to be creative. The movie may be using an overly blatantly Freudian perspective in depicting his relationship with his monstrous father.  Dad disparages his son’s obvious talents at every turn.  Later on, without consulting anyone, he sells off the rights to his music for less than $1 million, claiming that, in any case, in a few years, no one will remember who Wilson is or his songs.

love_&_mercy_2_cusack_giamatti_banksThough Pohlad wisely never pinpoints the source of Wilson’s derangement, he  singles out as the piece’s real villain Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), Wilson’s personal psychologist and legal guardian. Landy keeps such a tight rein on Wilson (now played by Cusack) that he regards his caring girlfriend, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), as a direct threat. He orders her to report back to him on her dates with Wilson, and for a while she compiles.

Dano’s Wilson is happiest when he is in the studio making music. The scene in which he orchestrates the famed Wrecking Crew musicians at a recording session for the album “Pet Sounds” is exhilarating. Playing by himself, “God Only Knows” on the piano also provide moments of singular pleasure.

love_&_mercy_1_danoThe film’s few lighter touches are provided in the first meeting and ensuing courtship of Melinda.  When he spots her in a car dealership, he is smitten and rejuvenated by this appealing saleswoman.  For her part, Melinda doesn’t even recognize who he is–his fame is not a factor in their relationship.  The fact that they are still married (Two decades after meeting) gives an extra layer of poignancy to “God Only Knows,” his beautiful love song.

In his experimental approach to biopicture, Pohlad follows in the footsteps of Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” in which a varied group of actors (not all of them white or male) played various facets of Bob Dylan.  The link between the two films is offered by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote with Haynes the 2007 I’m Not There, and is the co-scripter of this picture with Michael Alan Lerner.

A fragmentary narrative, the aptly titled “Love &Mercy” cuts back and forth between the two eras and the two actors who portray Wilson.  End result is a movie that is not so much confusing or unsettling, but frustrating since it fails to illuminate the sources of Wilson’s creative genius, the specific influences on his work.

Despite superficial references to the Beatles and other figures of the American and British music scene, Love & Mercy is a film without a context, a text so narrowly defined and tightly focused that we rarely see Wilson outside his immediate milieu, or even outside of his home (he’s mostly in bed, wither as a boy or as an adult).

At least one long act is devoted to the process in which Wilson’s signature song, Vibrations, was created and executed, detailing the tension with his father and the various conflicts with his band member.   I kept waiting for a full rendition of a complex music creation that has defined (and changed) a whole subculture and its generation. Yet all we get is snippets of this masterful song, bits and pieces of the iconic tune.

Movies about great artists represent challenges for good and responsible filmmakers.  Sharply uneven, this occasional powerful and intimate film is made by Pohlad, a vet producer who makes a so-so debut as a director, one who struggles with issues of pace, presentation and editing.

For a biopic of a songwriter there is not enough music, and the problem is not running time, as the Pohlad, like many other tyro directors, takes his time in dwelling on details of other episodes in a film that runs full two hours!