By concentrating on and linking together two different but key periods of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life, Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy sheds light on his creative talent while largely sidestepping the usual music biopic formula that sees stories moving conveniently through three distinct passages: the humble beginnings and the rise to fame, the subsequent travails (artistic, personal, artistic and personal) and finally death or some kind of redemption, depending on the star in question (that’s all present here but the focus is firmly on the management of mental health issues). We have Paul Dano playing Wilson at 23, already a successful artist but one who stops touring with his band in order to concentrate on the recording of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ symphonic, experimental response to Rubber Soul by The Beatles; and we also see John Cusack as the damaged, fragile Wilson of the late 1980s, a man struggling to cope with the radical therapy and controlling behaviour of Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) but simultaneously falling in love with second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Pohlad deals with the rise of The Beach Boys swiftly, an opening montage detailing their popularity as America (and then the rest of the world) briefly goes ga-ga for their catchy tales of California sunshine, girls, cars and surfing. It’s a smart decision, in that it indicates to the viewer at an early stage that they will not simply be watching another music biopic, and it’s also executed with aplomb: Dano and the rest of the relevant actors re-create familiar promo shots, concerts and the like, while the manipulated footage looks suitably authentic.
A panic attack on a plane is given as the catalyst for Brian’s decision to stop touring with the band, leaving brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) as well as cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) to enjoy life on the road while Brian sets about making the record that critics regularly suggest is one of the best albums of all time. Subsequent scenes will be enjoyed by Beach Boys fans in particular: the introduction of Wrecking Crew musicians such as Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) and Carol Kaye (Teresa Cowles) will give nerds a frisson of excitement, despite it being one of Love And Mercy‘s clunkier passages, and seeing Wilson excitedly tap out the intro to I’m Waiting For The Day on a passing drum is indicative of the many nice touches as the band sets about recording their constituent parts. This attention to musical detail continues later, but is linked more to the star’s increasing mental health issues: Wilson placing a piano in a sandpit and forcing session musicians to wear fireman hats is now the stuff of rock legend, and those stories are usually told to amuse, to sum-up mid-’60s LSD-influenced experimentation and to reinforce the belief that a fine line exists between genius and madness, but here Pohlad is keen to show that it’s not just some wacky drugs anecdote and is in fact indicative of something far more serious. (Interestingly the same events were covered sympathetically in Allison Anders’ underrated Grace Of My Heart, in which Matt Dillon played a character that is Wilson in all but name.)
We cut back and forth between the Pet Sounds period (as well as the recording of abandoned follow-up Smile) and the scenes with Cusack’s Wilson, who meets Ledbetter when she tries to sell him a new car. Where the swing of the ’60s in this film is defined by the presence of many principal characters and extras (extravagant recording sessions, pool parties, band meetings and so on) the ’80s is a marked contrast: a handful of actors are used, California appears paler, quieter, and the musician is sad, withdrawn and child-like, as indicated by his desire at one point to ‘make out like teenagers’. Pohlad’s transitions between the two decades are smooth, partly thanks to the performances of Dano and Cusack (the latter being able to watch and reference the performance of the former), partly through the connective symbolic use of water, but also notably in the appearance of dual unsympathetic father figures: the domestic violence perpetrated by father and bitter former manager Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) is highlighted, as is an unpleasant streak of jealousy, while in the later period Landy takes his place, keeping watch on his cash cow at all times and even employing a chaperone / bodyguard as Wilson and Ledbetter go on their early dates. Those familiar with real life events will know all about the svengali, from his large salary and his mis-diagnosis of Wilson’s condition to his rather unpleasant attempts to take control of the star’s musical career and legacy — my CD liner notes for Pet Sounds even refer to Landy as an ‘executive consultant’, despite the fact he began working with Wilson in 1975, ten years after the album was made. The screenplay points out that the Landy years tellingly began after the singer went through a period of reclusivity in the wake of Murry’s death.
While it’s perfectly understandable that Giamatti is required to make an impact and to portray the psychotherapist as devious and occasionally monstrous, it must be said that his performance seems more in keeping with a cheap TV movie than this particular film; in fact one scene, in which an unseen, eavesdropping Landy suddenly reveals his presence in a studio recording booth was greeted by loud guffaws in my cinema – not the intended effect – as presumably it reminded many viewers of this kind of thing. The usual response is to round on the actor in such cases, but it’s hard to tell whether Giamatti is at fault, whether it is Pohlad’s direction, or whether it’s a combination of both. Whatever the reason it left me considering this to be a good ensemble performance, as opposed to one of the year’s best to date.
And so … the leads: the ever-likable Cusack hasn’t been this good for years, while it’s pleasing to see Dano continue his excellent run of form. The point has already been made many times over, but it’s worth repeating that while Dano clearly looks like the real 1960s singer, Cusack bares little resemblance to either his co-star or the middle-aged Wilson (except for the shape of their respective mouths). Thankfully even the fact that the two leads have different-coloured eyes doesn’t preclude the viewer from accepting that it’s the same man, while interestingly Oren Moverman’s presence as co-screenwriter (he worked on Michael Alan Lerner’s original script) brings to mind his earlier involvement with I’m Not There, the magnificent Todd Haynes’ film in which several different actors played Bob Dylan.
The surprise is, arguably, Elizabeth Banks; Melinda is sympathetic and kind, while her lack of comfort as she suddenly has to negotiate this odd world of cranks and superstars is telegraphed well, but she is more than a simple saviour and Banks reveals the character’s strength, resilience and defiance with a welcome subtlety, especially as she shares a number of her scenes with Giamatti. It’s too early to get into all this nonsense once again but it’s no surprise that there’s talk of an Academy Award nomination for her work here. We’ll see.
The support is very much ‘the support’. To wit Dennis and Carl Wilson, two complex figures in real life, only really feature as sounding boards for their brother, while Erin Darke’s part as Marilyn, Brian’s first wife, is sadly underwritten. Max Schneider makes a very brief impression as songwriter Van Dyke Parks (mainly because he gets to stomp off during a band meeting) but only Abel’s Mike Love manages to step successfully from the background into the foreground, primarily due to his entertaining clashes with Wilson over the band’s direction. Love famously wanted to ditch the experimentation and return to the formulaic pop that made The Beach Boys stars; he repeatedly questions the methods of Dano’s Brian here, and after Pet Sounds is released his anger regarding it’s disappointing chart position is somewhat amusing, given the benefit of hindsight.
Finally the sound design must be singled out for praise, especially for the way in which Atticus Ross’s soundtrack dovetails with the foley work to establish the oppressive nature of the cacophonies Brian hears (these auditory hallucinations are believed to be linked to his father’s beatings, but were almost certainly exacerbated by Wilson’s use of LSD). One scene in particular stands out, in which the cumulative effect of cutlery noise during a dinner party causes Wilson to scream in agony moments before the audience does the same. It’s both fitting and telling that great attention is paid to the sound in Love And Mercy, as it’s wholly in keeping with Brian Wilson’s own ability to make sense of the sounds he imagined and indicative more generally that Pohlad, his writers and his crew have thought long and hard about the man at the heart of the story. This is a very good biopic, which makes Giamatti’s performance an even greater shame.
Directed by: Bill Pohlad.
Written by: Michael Alan Lerner, Oren Moverman. Based on Heroes And Villains by Michael Alan Lerner.
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald.
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman.
Editing: Dino Jonsäter.
Music: Atticus Ross, The Beach Boys.
Running Time: 120 minutes.