My knowledge on Brian Wilson and the history of the Beach Boys is fairly basic, which is why I was curious about Love & Mercy. The film is directed by Bill Pohlad, whose only other directing credit is some 1990 movie called Old Explorers, but he’s mostly known for producing a ton of films, including the likes of 12 Years a Slave, Brokeback Mountain and The Tree of Life. It is written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, and stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson.
Love & Mercy, instead of being a standard sweeping biopic of Brian Wilson’s life, it focuses on two points. One part of the story takes place in the 60s, as we follow Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) at the height of his success with the Beach Boys. We observe him as he spends his time creating what will eventually become the album, Pet Sounds, and how that affects his relationship with the band, his father Murry (Bill Camp) and the way he slowly loses grip on his own sanity. The other part of the story takes place during the 80s, Brian Wilson (John Cusack) is a broken, confused and sick man, not that his controlling therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), seems to really do anything to fix. However, when Brian meets a car saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), they have an immediate connection that feels like hope for Brian.
I didn’t have any real expectations going in, I like to keep my mind open to surprises, and Love & Mercy might be one of the biggest surprises so far this year. This film destroyed me, and it might be one of the most emotionally intense films of 2015. The musician biopic is a tough genre to tackle with, especially in post-Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story world (no, I’m not joking, that film is a comedic masterpiece). What the filmmakers do right is taking an unconventional approach to telling Brian Wilson’s story; it’s ambitious, but incredibly intimate at the same time. Screenwriter, Oren Moverman, was actually a co-writer on another unique biopic, I’m Not There, so that kind of explains the interesting storytelling in this film (also, I think this is better than I’m Not There). The two stories are told through constant flashbacks and flashforwards, and what holds all these individual pieces together is the strong emotional and thematic throughline that the filmmakers did a great job with.
So, in case I haven’t already made clear, the approach is strong, and perfect for what the filmmakers are trying to do. However, it’s up to the actors to bring the story to life and they are phenomenal. I’ll be the first to say that John Cusack looks nothing like an older Paul Dano, but it doesn’t matter. The real magic of the film is, despite that and their distinctly different takes on Brian, you can feel that they are the same person. It’s brilliant and awards-worthy work from both actors. Elizabeth Banks also does a fantastic job as well. Paul Giamatti’s Eugene Landy is a bit tricky. It could be said that Landy is a relatively thin character in the film that could come off as really cartoony. I was fine with it because, in all honestly, portraying any positive elements in the relationship between him and Brian would have been a huge disservice. Plus, I just loved hate-watching Paul Giamatti playing such an irredeemable scumbag. Those are the major players in the film, but the smaller roles are also well acted and memorable in their own right, especially Bill Camp and Jake Abel, who plays Mike Love, Brian’s cousin.
The production team did a wonderful job recreating both time periods through great attention to detail and costume work. Another person who deserves some credit is Robert Yeoman for his cinematography. The scenes during the 60s has this grainy, mostly handheld 16mm look, whereas the scenes in the 80s are a bit more clear and withdrawn, basically giving us a clear look at what Brian has been reduced to. It’s great work, but never calls attention to itself; it works purely in service to the story. I also thought Atticus Ross did superb work with the score, which is about as unconventional as the storytelling in the film. It’s mostly atmospheric work, which occasionally blends in actual vocals from both Brian Wilson and Paul Dano, as well as session tapes from the Beach Boys’ archives.
It’s actually surprising to me that there hasn’t been a film made about the Beach Boys until now. Now that Love & Mercy has been made and released, I think the team behind the film has made the definitive Beach Boys movie. Granted, the focus is less on the music, their rise to fame or their effect on pop culture, but I think they took the best, and most interesting, approach that they could come up with. Even the concept of focusing on the struggles of a genius is a tough nut to crack in terms of storytelling. Love & Mercy is a beautiful, intimate and empathetic film that will no doubt resonate, even with those who have no knowledge of the people that this film is based off of. It’s hard enough to do justice to someone that so many people hold dear for nostalgic reasons, but Love & Mercy shows that it can be done. It’s one of 2015’s best, and an instant-classic in biopic filmmaking. This is not one to miss.