I’m somebody who believes in the mythology of rock and roll. A band’s narrative, their legend, charges the music with an additional emotion. There’s so much to gain in understanding an album within the context of when it was written. Knowing the intentions of its author may take something away from the endorphin releasing joy of hearing beautiful pop music for the first time, but it allows for something deeper. Forgive the corny metaphor but like falling in love, initial powerful lust pales in the wake of truly knowing and understanding somebody.
And so it is with Bill Pohlad’s joyful and heartbreaking Love and Mercy. Bill really wants you to understand Pet Sounds. And to do this you must dissect the man behind the music, Brian Wilson. He is presented here in a dual performance by Paul Dano at his 60s creative peak and a career best John Cusack during his over-medicated wilderness years during the 80s.
The majority of musical biopics are fairly linear experiences charting a simple A-B route in an artist’s life with stopoffs at any given juncture. Love and Mercy hops between the two aforementioned decades chronicling the absolute height of Brian’s muse and first struggles with mental illness. The movie begins buoyantly with a montage of faux documentary footage of The Beach Boys on tour set to some of their early greatest hits. When the boys (Brian, his brothers Dennis, Carl and cousin Mike Love) return to their L.A. home, Brian elects to eschew life on the road due to the various anxieties it causes him. In return he convinces his band mates that he can take their music to a new creative plateau.
Brian Wilson is shown here as a generous but doubtful genius. He’s a wonderful collaborator and embraces ideas from weird, eclectic sources to help forge the album’s sound. Some of the film’s most joyful moments stem from the home movie flavoured studio sessions. Brian constantly utilises outside-the-box thinking to produce the innovative sonic landscapes of Pet Sounds. Wild key changes, dog barks, plucked piano strings and a willingness to allow improvisation and experimentation show a man in the throes of wild inspiration, and in turn it’s inspiring to watch. Paul Dano actually sings during the studio segments of the film, highlights being the sad and beautiful melodies that form ‘Caroline, No’ and the gestation of harmonies and melodies for the pocket symphony of ‘Good Vibrations’.
What Brian is seeking is love for his art and to create something timeless. Simultaneously he quests to appease his own creativity and gain approval from critics, his peers, his band mates, his abusive father, Capitol Records and the general record buying public. While his music is clearly everything, he becomes increasingly insular and difficult to relate to as the film progresses; with a growing lack of time for people not directly affiliated with his growth as a musician. The drugs gain a stronghold, and Brian’s descent into madness is steep and sudden. This is most clearly demonstrated by the voices in his head. There is almost non existent screen time for his first wife and he displays general apathy towards his newborn daughter, who in the shadow of his real child (his music) simply didn’t matter.
This is all very nicely counter balanced by the alternating scenes set in the late eighties. Brian is at the total mercy of his shrink Eugene Landy (a monstrous turn by the typically great Paul Giamatti, who is his legal guardian. Mis-diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, John Cusack bleeds regret and sincerity as a man who cares little about music and just wants to find love and redemption for what he lost in his youth. Redemption is found in a chance meeting with Elizabeth Bank’s portrayal of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, who would eventually become his second wife. It’s in these moments, that Love and Mercy transcends the trappings of a ‘VH1- Behind the Music’ special and becomes a truly romantic love story regardless of the celebrity of those involved. Brian is being manipulated and abused by people in a powerful position of trust. And love, this time for Melinda and the chance to reconcile with his estranged daughters gives him the strength to find his own redemption.
Atticus Ross’ electronic score (comprised of his original material married to a collage of classic Beach Boys sound bites) impresses throughout, and is somewhat akin to his Gone Girl soundtrack with Trent Reznor.
Love and Mercy succeeds on several levels. It’s a classic biopic: Brian Wilson (who had almost zero involvement with the production) has stated that the events within the film are very factual. It does exactly what a good biopic should do, shine a bright light on its subject and make you want to dive headfirst into their art despite all the catastrophic flaws in character that make them mere humans like us. Best of all, (and this is the rarer trick) Love and Mercy tells its own compelling story. It stands alone as a rewarding experience whether or not you ever have or will go surfing with Brian and his gang.
Review by Mark Bartlett
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