'Love and Mercy' Tells the Truth about Brian Wilson


Biographical films of rock and pop stars are a tricky proposition. One of the most successful remains one of the first, 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story. Recent releases include the James Brown film Get On Up, which took some liberties with his story but managed to convey much of Brown’s spirited music and personality, and the questionable All Is By My Side about Jimi Hendrix. But none I’ve ever seen has managed to wow me like one that will hit theaters soon: Love & Mercy.

It’s about a musician whose work has been a dear and important part of my life since my youth: Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Two TV movies have already been made about the band, Summer Dreams: The Story of The Beach Boys and The Beach Boys: An American Family, neither worth seeing.

Love & Mercy is a whole different matter: well-worth seeing even if you aren’t necessarily a Beach Boys fan, because it’s a masterful work of filmmaking, and a don’t-miss movie if you are. It may be, in my estimation, the best movie made to date about a famous popular music star.

It focuses on Wilson’s descent into mental illness in the mid-1960s, his questionable “treatment” from the mid-1970s through the 1980s and recovery in the early 1990s, and succeeds on many counts. Rather than following a biographical arc it cuts back and forth as two actors play Wilson: Paul Dano as the young Brian, and John Cusack in his later years. The somewhat unconventional approach works like a charm.

Dano not only looks uncannily like Wilson in his youth but seems to inhabit him as he suffers a panic attack on an airplane on the way to a concert and retires from touring to write songs and working in the studio. The glimpses of him working with musicians on recording Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and the legendary Smile – shelved but later reassembled, adapted and released in 2004 – have a “you are there” quality I’ve never seen before in a biopic, showing a true genius at work. In all of his scenes, it’s as if Dano is Brian Wilson.

On the other hand, Cusack doesn’t so much resemble the older Wilson, per se. But in what may be the tour de force performance of his career, he inhabits Brian in a very real and affecting manner that all but transforms the actor into the man he plays. Especially effective is the way Cusack embodies the mannerisms, gestures and way Wilson speaks, not uncommon physiological tics found in people who have suffered from mental illness.

Also masterful is Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy, the controversial psychologist who treated Wilson off and on and so exceeded his bounds – running his patient’s life in questionably dictatorial and abusive ways, to name just one issue the film shows – that his license to practice in California was revoked. Scenes with the actors playing the other Beach Boys (well) have a ring of authenticity.

The script and the direction by Bill Pohlad cannily use the tools available in the cinematic medium to blend together pivotal scenes from parts of Wilson’s life in a way where the sum of the parts really is greater than the whole, conveying the essence of the man’s life story. The techniques – especially threading the Beach Boy’s romance with his second wife Melinda Ledbetter (nicely portrayed by the stunning Elizabeth Banks) as the arc of how his story is told – also add up into a masterful and engaging film. Plus there’s the delightful spirit of Wilson’s timelessly amazing musical creations throughout.

Even though I am very familiar with Wilson’s story as well as his music, at the end of the screening I saw at the South By Southwest Film Festival, tears came to my eyes. Yes, it’s that great a movie, masterfully done, emotionally stirring, poignant and sweetly triumphant. A biopic can never get to documentarian reality, but as far as how things looked, felt and happened in Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy shows the truth of it – a major accomplishment. I urge any and all to catch this, yes, masterpiece on the big screen (it also looks great) when it opens in early June.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015


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