Love & Mercy is about the joy (and sometimes hard times and real pain) of the creative process, and what happens when the mind gets in the way of being happy with yourself. I look at Brian Wilson in this movie - based on the real Brian Wilson, one of the founders of the Beach Boys and, for many years, its chief creative director on its albums - and he is a tragic figure.
He and his family (brothers and cousin) have been shaped into what they're at due to their task-master father (who has been let go by the time they record Pet Sounds in the mid 60's, one of the plots in this film), and Brian knows that this father was important to who he is even as he can't stand him. This is paralleled in the film by what happens in the late 80's as he is still under the control of an unconventional psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who is another surrogate father figure. He may have actually helped Brian though, which makes the position precarious as he is apart from his children and may have a new relationship with another woman he meets at a car dealership.
As a biopic this could have gone through the whole life of Brian Wilson, but the screenwriter Oren Moverman and director Brian Pohlad (lensed by the great Robert Yeoman) know that there needs to be a strong emotional through-line, and that the audience has seen many musical bio-pics about screwed up masterminds (last year we got Get On Up, and of course The Doors looms in the mind). What we get by having Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson are two portraits of the same
person, a young man with the drive of a, for lack of a better comparison, Mozart, and then as an older man kind of broken, f***ed up by the voices in his head, and unable at times to control himself.
It does have a strong story, two of them really considering the two time-lines, but it's a character study of someone creating (or trying to create) art, and nothing is totally black and white here; when he makes this album that will push the Beach Boys father than before - the Beatles being their sorta competition - the musicians are stunned at the complexity, and the other Boys are too... some of them, when not seeing that it's also possibly TOO complex, and sadder than their Surfing songs. And the same gray areas can be said for what goes on in the 80's scenes; while Landy is a clear antagonist, with Elizabeth Banks' Melinda Ledbetter as the one trying to find Brian some peace of mind by being just a normal, loving person, there's a lot to consider with Landy and Brian's ties to one another: will Brian crack without the doctor? How tight is this man's grip on Brian? Was his helpfulness at one time making things much too complicated in extricating himself?
The structure is great, and even greater for me is showing the highs and lows of making something new and following the creative process in full. Having the Making of Pet Sounds as a major part of the heart of Love & Mercy paints the rest of the film: the opening credits show the "Good" times of performing the fun pop jingles many of us have heard a thousand times in front of screaming audiences.
This seems almost like a long-ago, hazy memory when later in the film Brian is in a band
meeting in a pool (there's microphones everywhere, says paranoid Brian Wilson), and the ideas for what to do next don't go over well - this including the next album, Smile, which will only come out in 2004 (this comes at the end). On purpose, we don't see much of the creation of Wilson's first solo album in the late 80's - it's really from Melinda's point of view (until near the end, as a catharsis point comes full circle), and if it was difficult to make Pet Sounds, the Love & Mercy creation seems nigh impossible.
And all through this, Dano, Cusack, Banks and especially Giamatti are delivering their A-games. There have been times where Dano's been in roles, or just appeared on screen (There Will be Blood, Prisoners, 12 Years a Slave, Looper, etc) where he plays a character who you almost relish getting beat down by the main character - his knack is for usually playing despicable, slimy people.
But as Brian Wilson he's revelatory; you want to give his character a hug practically, as he digs into Wilson's vulnerability, his detachment when people like his father put him down, and how he can't really take his anxieties and the voices, even as things go right (see the scene where people celebrate
Good Vibrations going to number 1, it's an incredible moment of drama). And Cusack hasn't been this good in years - or maybe given the chance to get a character like this - as a wounded soul who does genuinely like and attract to positive people and vibes. This makes his bond with Landy all the more difficult and strange and, at best, awkward.
Landy and Banks are great too, to their varying degrees; Banks is the one who may be more like the audience, coming in to this situation that is Brian Wilson, seeing the good, the bad and the weird and trying to make the good better. And Giamatti is Giamatti, which is delightful, even in a small moment like asking a nosy question at a Moody Blues concert (you'll know the scene, and it's one of those subtle red flag moments with the character, if that makes sense).
|Even that cardigan screams RUN!|
Love & Mercy carries so much heart and so much interesting, dynamic drama, while also being musically fun and exciting and the filmmaking matching it all ("Can we get a horse in here? Brian asks one point about the album's title track in studio) that I can't help but see it as sticking around as one of the better rock bios ever.