Love and Mercy: Video Review

Love and Mercy (2015)
Director Bill Pohland
Lionsgate, 120minutes, PG-13

Films about Baby Boomer idols seldom set the box office on fire. I suspect that’s because Boomers have their own memories and no one else particularly cares, though it certainly doesn’t help that so many films about the 1960s and 1970s are either dreck or uneven. Love and Mercy, a Brian Wilson biopic, falls into the second category. Although it’s no masterpiece, it is certainly worth watching as a download or stream. That’s how most of us ended up seeing it, as it did only modest business when it went into wide distribution in June 2015.

Here’s why you should see it. First, the Beach Boys were far more than the surf songs that get radio oldies play ever summertime. Brian Wilson is one of the most creative minds in the music business, and I mean that across genres. The sand-and-party hits notwithstanding, the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds was and is a landmark in soundscaping. Rolling Stone lists it as among the 40 most influential albums in popular music history; some claim it surpasses Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the most important recording of the entire 1960s. Such debates seldom go deeper than personal preference, but wherever it’s ranked, serious music critics will tell you that familiarity with Pet Sounds is an essential part of anyone’s musical education. The next time you hear “Good Vibrations,” listen deeply. On that hit single and throughout Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson reinvented what we think “rock” music means and sounds like. From the opening Theremin sounds to all the strings, horns, key shifts, and “pet” sounds—today we'd call them “found sounds” (bicycle bells, soda can percussion, disconnected background voices)— Wilson collapsed composition and genres to create music that some found “weird,” but which has stood the test of time.

The second reason to see the film is that this music came from Brian Wilson’s head. Paul Dano, who does a superb job of inhabiting the mind of a tortured genius, portrays the youthful Wilson. I was reminded of Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus. Actors, of course, are paid to pretend to be another person, but it’s another thing altogether to display how the mind works. It’s hard enough to define creativity, let alone make an audience “see” it at work. Like Hulce, Dano used facial expressions and body movements to make us imagine what the inside of Wilson’s head was like.

That’s not a place most of us would wish to reside; Brian Wilson battled with mental illness, and must still use heavy-duty meds to control schizophrenia. When we meet an older Wilson—played by John Cusak—in 1986, he was under the tyrannical and Svengali-like control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a charlatan who tore down Wilson’s ego, kept him sedated, and bilked him. The film presents Landry as a more evil version of Wilson’s authoritarian father (Bill Camp). That’s both simplistic and a contrived close the circle Hollywood device. Still, we get the point that Brian Wilson often lacked the support systems he needed.

The film is essentially four acts and a coda: a truncated look at the rise of the Beach Boys, Wilson’s simultaneous creative assent and mental descent, the nadir of the Landy years, and romantic salvation at the hands of his eventual second wife, Melinda Kae Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The coda, which plays over the final credit, is the real Brian Wilson performing the movie’s titular song, which he released on his 1988 comeback album.

Dano, Cusak, and Banks are very good in the film. Also convincing are Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, and Jake Abel in the roles of Brian’s brothers Dennis and Carl, plus cousin Mike Love. Graham Rogers is also solid as the fifth Beach Boy, Al Jardine. The musical sequences are all the more remarkable given that the soundtrack is a pastiche of Beach Boys tapes, recreations by the actors, and an original score from Atticus Ross.

I was less enamored of the usually reliable Paul Giamatti, whose Landy was both histrionic and cartoon-like. I felt the same about Camp’s performance. As is often the case, the film also takes liberties with Wilson’s actual biography and gives him credit for several innovations that weren’t actually his. One wonders why this was necessary given that Wilson’s story is already sufficiently dramatic and unique. The film’s major flaw, though, lies with continuity lapses in the script penned by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moveman. They opted for flashback/flash forward sequencing that works for those who already know about Wilson and the Beach Boys, but which is clunky for those who don’t. I also found it jarring to see Dano, who looks sufficiently like younger Wilson, in one moment, and Cusak the next. Cusak is a fine actor, but he doesn’t look much Dano or Wilson.

Overall, though, this is a decent look at Brian Wilson. All non-Boomers should see it to learn about Wilson’s iconic compositions. Maybe the Beach Boys will never be your thing, but Pet Sounds will change the way you hear music.

Rob Weir

No comments: