LOVE & MERCY Movie Review – Two Brians Enter, One Brian Leaves
Biopics tend to come in two types or flavors: An everything, cradle-to-the-grave biopic built around character- and history-defining events or a slice of life approach, tied or connected to specific, pivotal character and history illuminating moments. The former can slip into meandering, unfocused, expensive sprawl without a clear, focused vision, while the latter can offer insights, profound or otherwise, on a modest budget. Producer-turned-director Bill Pohlad’s longtime passion project, Love & Mercy, fits into a third, hybrid category: two different, character-defining or redefining time periods, and a character, Brian Wilson, played by two actors, Paul Dano (Brian Wilson – Past) and John Cusack (Brian Wilson – Future). It’s an elegant, if not entirely successful, decision meant to convey two distinct, pre- and post-breakdown Wilsons (roughly the early to mid ‘60s and the mid-‘80s).
Despite early success as the central creative spark behind the Beach Boys, the California based band whose playful, intentionally lightweight songs made them, if only for a time, the American equivalent of the Beatles, Wilson began to push explicitly for a more experimental sound, a decision that unsurprisingly strained his relationship with his two brothers, Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald), and their cousin, Mike Love (Jake Abel). Intentionally or not, Wilson and Love’s well-chronicled conflict over the band’s direction represents the age-old battle between art (Wilson) and commerce (Love). Along with Wilson’s father, Murray (Bill Camp), Love repeatedly pushed in the opposite direction, toward the formula that made the Beach Boys’ perennial Top 40 hit makers. Murray also represents something else: The overbearing, authoritarian father, a frustrated, minor musician who molded his sons into a commercially successful band, often at great personal, psychological cost (theirs, not his).
Murray also functions as one narrative hook, the controlling, abusive father who, at least in Pohlad’s telling, bears significant responsibility for Wilson’s subsequent mental breakdown, with Wilson’s therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), functioning as the other father figure, a figure we meet in the latter, ‘80’s set part of the film. The younger Wilson broke off his relationship with his father, firing him as his manager (his father still controlled song rights, however, which he sold for less than one million dollars), but two decades later, essentially replaced him with another controlling, abusive father. Wilson went as far as making Landy his legal guardian. In turn, Landy used his power over Wilson for personal gain, keeping Wilson perpetually drugged and under tight supervision. Pohlad doesn’t address, however, whether Landy’s presence in Wilson’s life benefitted Wilson, at least initially (before they met, Wilson had turned reclusive, self-medicating on drugs, alcohol, and junk food). Landy’ central villainy also means he never rises above the level of caricature.
Love & Mercy finds Landy’s counterbalance in Melissa Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman Wilson meets in the ‘80s when he’s shopping for a new car under the close supervision of Landy and his security detail. Almost immediately, Landy sees Melissa as a threat to his control over Wilson, but it’s only a matter of screen time before Melissa convinces Wilson and Wilson’s family to extricate Wilson from Landy’s control. Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, The Messenger) and Michael Alan Lerner’s script never quite makes a persuasive case for Wilson and Melissa’s relationship. Wilson doesn’t come off as charming, just odd, prone to awkward tangents, bouts of self-pity, and next to little self-awareness. A later scene highlights Melissa’s non-financial motive (she’s willing to walk away if it means Landy’s ouster), but it feels forced and contrived, there to specifically obviate potential audience concerns.
In contrast, the presence of Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn (Erin Drake), seems superfluous. She’s a background, tangential character, a passive witness to Wilson’s continued mental deterioration, fueled, in part, by experimentation with hallucinogens, but it’s in the ‘60’s-set scenes that Love & Mercy offers more than just the standard, reductive biopic clichés, focusing less on interpersonal conflicts than Wilson’s creative process. As much as a producer as a musician or songwriter, Wilson skipped touring and performing for the studio sessions that would become ‘Pet Sounds,” the cornerstone of the Beach Boys’ elevated place in pop-music history. Popular with music critics, but not listeners, “Pet Sounds” caused dissension within the band, forcing a temporary retrenchment back to the Beach Boys’ earlier sound before Wilson returned to the risk-taking and formal experimentation of the “Smile” sessions (eventually completed by Wilson in 2004).
Not surprisingly, the roughly two-decade gap leaves a great deal out, like the collapse of Wilson’s marriage, his continued collaboration with Love and his brothers on subsequent Beach Boy records, primarily as their in-house studio producer, instead taking an impressionistic, almost abstract approach, ending with a series of shots that interweave Wilson, past, present, and future into the “new” Wilson we meet in the closing scene, healed, healthy, and happy. Per the biopic formula, Love & Mercy’s closing credits feature the real Wilson performing the title track.