This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Telling the true story of Beach Boy and all round musical genius, Brian Wilson, Love and Mercy explores two crucial periods in Wilson's life. In the first, we meet Wilson (as played by Paul Dano) at his creative peak in the mid-sixties, about to record the seminal album Pet Sounds but whose already fragile self starts crumbling as pressures, both inside and out, start playing on his mind. The second portion of Wilson's life, which is told concurrently to the first and set in the mid 1980s. finds him (this time portrayed by John Cusack) a broken man, medicated up to his ears by his controlling psychiatrist and estranged from his family and friends and lacking any independence whatsoever, but when he meets Melinda Ledbetter, a beautiful car-saleswoman, his life takes a very unexpected turn.
What we thought
Love and Mercy is very simply, and by quite some distance, the best pop biopic to come along since at least Walk the Line and is, in no uncertain times, one of the year's very best films. Partly, no doubt, because Brian Wilson is one of the very, very few musical legends even more fascinating than the Man in Black but also because Love and Mercy just does such a tremendous job of bringing this extraordinary life – and crucially, this extraordinary talent - to life on our screens.
From script to performances to score, Love and Mercy is not your average biopic and it's all the better for it. Largely rewriting the original script by Michael A Lerner, screenwriter, Oren Movermen, brings the unique approach that he took with the brilliantly demented Bob Dylan impressionist-biopic to bear on Love and Mercy's similarly legendary subject.
Not that Love and Mercy is anywhere near as insanely ambitious as I'm Not There. It only intertwines two different stories together, rather than seven or eight, for a start, and its portrayal of Wilson is very much literal and shockingly factual, unlike the more mythic and symbolic take on the Dylan of I'm Not There. Not that's a bad thing, though. Dylan has always been a self-mythologizing enigma so presenting his story as such made perfect sense, but Wilson's tale needed an approach that would play up the emotion, first of the gloriously beautiful music he made, then the madness that would wrack him for years and finally the redemption that he would find in his later life through music, love and a reclaimed self-worth.
Again though, just because it's not completely off its rocker, doesn't mean that Love and Mercy doesn't have many of its own peculiarities. It has, as you may have noticed, two very, very different actors portraying Brian Wilson, who not only look nothing alike but, in John Cusack's case, looks absolutely nothing like Wilson at all. However, considering just how drastic the change is from the young, idealistic Wilson to his mentally troubled, hopelessly sad later self, it's absolutely fitting that the “two” Wilsons should be played by two different actors.
Plus, though Dano may look like a young Brian, Cusack captures older Brian's speech patterns and mannerisms with eerie perfection. Indeed, though the cast is brilliant from the top down, with Elizabeth Banks providing her best performance yet as Brian's love and salvation, Melinda Ledbetter, it's especially pleasing to see a brilliant actor like Jon Cusack finally having a role truly worthy of his talents.
Another major departure that the film takes from both most biopics and the sprawling I'm Not There, is that it explores Wilson's life through no more than two disparate plot threads and largely leaves the usual sex, drugs and troubles with the law, that are the typical subject of most pop biopics, to the viewer's imagination. By focusing simultaneously but exclusively on these two time periods, Love and Mercy is a wonderfully focused and contained piece of work that gives full attention to both the love story that ultimately saved Wilson's life (or, more accurately, two love stories that saves his life – Wilson notes in the film that his first wife saved his life when he was at the lowest depths of his madness) and the incredible music he produced. And, even if the earlier years are, to my mind, the more interesting of the two periods conveyed in the film, the way that the two eras mirror and bounce off one another make both equally crucial – especially as the meld so perfectly in the middle.
And, oh, that music. Along with Atticus Ross' sublime score that draws on different snippets of Wilson's own music, Love and Mercy is worth it alone just for the beautiful way it portrays the writing and recording of some of the greatest music to come out of America. For years, I thought that Pet Sounds was good but rather overrated but between the film giving me a new-found appreciation for the album's melodic genius, daring arrangements and heavenly vocal harmonies and its spurring me on to relisten to the album (though this time in a nice stereo remaster) over and over again over the past two weeks, I can now officially make the following proclamation: I'm an idiot. I'm a massive, massive idiot. To think, I had this mindblowing, almost religiously profound masterpiece in my collection for years and I didn't appreciate it until now! Massive. Idiot.
There's already so much to be thankful to director Bill Pohlad for in this wonderful, wonderful film (that marks only his second time in the director's chair in twenty-five years!) but that he got me to finally appreciate Wilson's masterpiece is by far the most profound. And that he helped me discover the gorgeous live version of the title track (which was way overproduced in its studio form) that plays over the credits certainly doesn't hurt my appreciation or adoration either.
Needless to say, Love and Mercy is an absolute must-see for all Beach Boys fans. But, honestly, if you're not a Beach Boys fan before seeing the film, you sure as hell will be afterwards.