The musical biopic is the Trojan Horse of the movies. It arrives bearing the gift of song only to empty its belly of clichés.
Upon first glance the life of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson appears to fill all the requirements of this dreary formula: child prodigy shoots to fame in the shadow of a domineering daddy, is fêted for his musical genius, succumbs to mental illness and retreats from the world, grows into an obese alcoholic drug abuser caught in the medicinal web of a quack doctor, is eventually rescued by the love of a good woman, and makes a triumphant musical comeback. The elements are ripe for mishandling, so it’s something of a miracle that Love & Mercy emerges not only as a corrective to the hackwork usually made of this kind of material, but as a damn good movie in its own right.
Love & Mercy establishes the slightly cockeyed tone of this musical odyssey right from the outset. A couple of eerie scenes of Wilson, one from his gifted youth and another from his sedentary middle years, when he lived like a beached whale on his bed, are played back to back. We must scramble to attention — disoriented by this unexpected prologue — as an ominous drone floods the soundtrack, nearly forcing us to cover our ears.
From there we are treated to a captivating home movie-ish montage of The Beach Boys in their surf’s up prime, their sunny hits tumbling forth like quarters from a slot machine. This is a clever way to deal with their jackpot years without dwelling on them.
Since we all know the golden jingles by heart, the movie brushes away those early years like sand from a beach towel, depositing us into the disquieting phase that began with the creation of Wilson’s first masterpiece, Pet Sounds, and continued with the initial warning signs of a strange, undiagnosed emotional malaise. He suffered acute anxiety attacks, crippling spells possibly caused by awful damage done to his right ear when he was a child, the result of a violent slap to the head from his arrogant and insecure father.
These scenes are interchanged with Wilson in the 1980’s, slowly re-entering the real world under the Svengali-like care of Dr. Eugene Landy, while attempting to start a relationship with Melinda Ledbetter, his future wife, whom he meets at a Cadillac dealership.The sequences play off each other with a sensitive balance, keyed to subtle details across the two eras, and suggestive of the gaping void left unexplained between the two Brians: the boy wonder — a troubled Mozart–and the sick and extremely vulnerable man-child, struggling to regain a sense of himself.
The movie gently seesaws back and forth in time with a surprising poignancy. We watch one man curl into a cocoon while another breaks free. Director Bill Pohlad, a longtime producer (12 Years A Slave) directing his first major feature, continually infuses the narrative with arresting moments, like the buoyant recreation of a promo film the boys made for Sloop John B., and the trippy, unsettling staging of Wilson’s virgin acid trip.
Much of the credit for Love & Mercy’s moving, absorbing rhythms goes to Paul Dano, playing the young Brian, and John Cusack, as the older version. Neither actor has had what you’d consider a knockout career, but both have had their defining moments: Dano as the exasperated, nervous teen in Little Miss Sunshine and Cusack as the lovelorn Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.
Dano has always played a little to the left of weird, Cusack to the right of bland. But both are brilliant in this film. Also excellent is Elizabeth Banks as Ledbetter, playing a rare role these days: a grown woman who, despite her hard knocks, has the self-respect and confidence to recognize and care for a broken soul. Her scenes with Landy, played with chilling perversity by Paul Giamatti, are some of the best in the picture. She charms him just enough to keep one eye on Wilson, while the other darts for an escape route.
But the best parts of this picture take place in the studio, first in the creation of Pet Sounds, and then with Wilson’s revolutionary, chart-topping extravaganza, Good Vibrations. While other biopics often treat the music as secondary to the tawdry scandals and tiresome addictions that bring down the superstars, Pohlad locks us in the studio with Wilson as he orchestrates, cajoles and compliments a vast platoon of battle-hardened studio players (who later became known as The Wrecking Crew, subject of a recent, but regrettably formulaic, documentary).
Wilson was only in his early twenties, but you get the feeling from these scenes that the music he was hearing way down deep in his head had been there since the beginning of time. It was simply waiting for the chrysalis of his genius to come forward, a transformation that nearly obliterated him.
This review first appeared in The Restless Critic blog.