The Beach Boys are one of those bands that have always been there. Since before I can remember their catchy pop ballads and bundles of light rock fun have been a constant on the radio or my parents mix-tapes. Only as I grew older and became a pompous music dilletante that i realised (and was told by several intelligent writers) just how good, no great, the music truly is. Despite having the wonder that was drummer Dennis Wilson in the band (if you’ve never heard his solo album Pacific Ocean Blue I envy you because you have that to look forward to in your lives) and Mike Love who would write lyrics, the real brains behind the music was Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson brought in a new era of sound collages that went far beyond Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the work of The Beatles & George Martin. He created music from such disparate sources into finely tuned 3 minute songs that it’s easy to miss their intricacies. These were the works of not only a musical genius but also a troubled mind. Toward the end 0f 1960s and the bands initial high point Wilson lapsed into depression and a schizoaffective state – hearing voices – which ended with him famously staying in his bedroom for nearly three years.
All of this is a long-range introduction of Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy – an autobiography in two parts on the life of Brian Wilson. Part One sees Wilson portrayed by Paul Dano, who it must be said looks eerily like Wilson in places, during the bands peak 60s period through the recording of the seminal Pet Sounds and the beginning of his mental decline. Part Two takes place in the 1980s where the part of Brian Wilson is portrayed by John Cusack, who it must be said just looks and sounds like John Cusack. Having slightly re-ingratiated himself into the outside world 80s Wilson life is overseen/controlled by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) until he meets a car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who tries to free Wilson from his mental and physical prison.
A biography of Brian Wilson has long been on the cards. A fascinating man with a tragic and intriguing story, it’s a story worth-telling. Indeed, the real Eugene Landy tried for years for Hollywood producers to make a film of their “friendship” that would have seen him played by Richard Dreyfuss and Wilson by William Hurt. Writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner decision to split his story and concentrate on two very different time periods is a bold one. Certainly more gutsy than simply moving cradle to grave, but it’s a device that seems a bit unsatisfactory.
The 1960s Wilson which goes to town on the politics of the band, the recording process and the mental decline is expertly made. Never less than fascinating, Dano puts in one of his best performances to date. When things switch to the 1980s though things seem to grind to a halt. After quickly growing to love Dano’s Wilson we’re rudely met by John Cusack. Whislt admittedly it’s the most engaged Cusack’s seemed in a while it still just feels like you’re watching Cusack the man. Director Pohlad has said that he wanted the two performances to be different to highlight how Wilson had changed pre and post breakdown, but in the pursuit of that effect the biography dynamic is thrown off balance and suddenly feels like you’re watching two different films.
In comparison with the 60s story the 80s also seems much more melodramatic. Giamatti shouts a lot in a performance that’s not a million miles away from Straight Outta Compton, just a different wig. Banks is passionate and engaging as always its just a shame her role feels like a catalyst for a faux-thriller plot.
I should stress though that overall Love & Mercy is a very enjoyable watch. Personally I would have liked more music and less melodrama but that’s me. The plot structure is a bold step that doesn’t always work. The scenes of Wilson in the studio, seeing how his musical was assembled is a truly exciting experience. Any film that can make that feeling come alive ultimately deserves it flaws be forgiven. Any film with ‘Surf’s Up’ on the soundtrack can be forgiven.
3.5 / 5
Dir: Bill Pohlad
Scr: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Prd: Bill Pohlad, Claire Rudnick Polstein, John Wells
DOP: Robert Yeoman
Music: Atticus Ross
Run time: 121 mis
Love & Mercy is available on Digital HD Dec 26th and Blu-ray & DVD Jan 4th 2016.