Love & Mercy (2015)

by Matt Piucci

It would be impossible for me to objectively review Bill Pohlad’s “Love and Mercy”, a biopic about Brian Wilson, as I consider him to be the 20th Century’s greatest songwriter. Objective or not, I think this is a brilliant film. Wilson’s music moves me as if he has Beach Boysa direct line to my soul, a feeling that I got even at age 6, when I heard his masterpiece “In My Room” for the first time. It also continues to amaze me that people as unexpected as Whoopi Goldberg tremble and break up in his presence, as she did recently on her TV show "The View". She was in tears trying to explain to Brian how much the song “In My Room” meant to her as a child growing up in New York. She could not get through the interview. I understand. This is the power of his art.

People often overlook the profound and timeless elements in his work, focusing on the childlike simplicity of the lyrics, or the surfer/frat boy themes. This aspect of the band represents their early work, which was revolutionary in 1961, but may seem conventional now. It was a style and formula that is now most associated with Mike Love - the band’s self-centered and insipid, but competent lead singer, who is also occasionally an excellent lyricist. That formula, fueled by Wilson’s prodigious musical talents, led to a staggering number of record sales. They are one of a very few bands to sell 100 million units, and were operating and charting before any other band who has done so since, including the Beatles.

There is another side to the music, or rather the music itself evolved significantly, and the film wisely chooses to focus upon this period, roughly 1966/7. There is some time spent on the obligatory but well-known backstory of their rise to prominence. Then the focus becomes Wilson’s personal journey that created the soaring complex harmonies, the sophisticated and symphonic tonality, and the absolutely unprecedented orchestrations in his twin masterpieces “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”. This is the guy whose advanced musicality impressed none other than Leonard Bernstein; the guy who scared the crap out of the Beatles after hearing their “Rubber Soul” and coming up with “Pet Sounds”, which in turn inspired their “Sgt Pepper”.

Perseverance is at the heart of his story and the film’s. A life is complicated, and the filmmaker has made a great choice by avoiding the totality of Wilson’s life, but to focus on the simple theme of redemption in two specific time periods. One is as described- the composer at the peak of his artistic powers. His demons finally catch up with him as he takes off into the musical unknown recording "Smile", which got little support from his band despite recording “Good Vibrations”, possibly the greatest and most advanced number #1 hit of all time. The story then advances roughly twenty years and zeroes in how one woman, Brian’s current wife Melinda (played well by Elizabeth Banks), saved him from yet another predatory bully who wanted a piece of the genius and ultimately saved his life. "Smile" was so far ahead of its time that he abandoned it as he fell apart and it was not until his marriage to Melinda Ledbetter that it became possibly to confront this monster. He did and in 2004 released the entirely rerecorded “Smile” with younger musicians. It is a masterpiece still.

Brian faced demons from birth; he was raised by a controlling, evil and deeply jealous father, himself a failed songwriter and musician, who beat him as a child to the point where he lost hearing on one ear. The problem continued as he was bullied by the biggest asshole in the history of Rock Music, his cousin Mike Love (played well by Jake Abel). Never before in the long, dirty history of the business of show has a marginally talented fool so directly and forcefully shit on the coattails that brought him stardom. And finally, after descending into the manic depressive madness that pressure, stress and a lack of support from his friends and family that caused him to lie in bed for three straight years, he was temporarily lifted out of that haze by an initially well-intentioned, but ultimately abusive and fully crazy psychiatrist - the spectacularly brazen and controlling Dr Eugene Landy, played here with rip roaring gusto by Paul Giamatti.

Another wise choice made by the near-novice director was to use just these two specific eras of Brian’s life, and to cast two separate actors to play him in those times. I can only think of one other film that does that successfully- Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Vito Corleone in the Godfather series. Here, John Cusack and Paul Dano play the Brian of the late 80’s and the 60’s respectively. Dano is transcendent as the genius at the peak of his artistic powers – focusing on the twin towers” Pet Sounds” and the interrupted masterpiece ‘Smile”. Dano turns in the best performance by him I have ever seen, fully and totally nailing the quirky, childish man who is possessed of Olympian musical talent.

John Cusack and Elizabeth BanksIn fairness to Cusack, his is the more difficult task. He is playing Brian at his most vulnerable and portraying a love story about the people producing the film- Melinda and Brian Wilson. If the film falters, it is there- Melinda Wilson is ably and sympathetically played by Elizabeth Banks, but her character seems like an angel more than a real human being. And it is hard not to see John Cusack, rather than Brian, as the actor is too famous for the role. But he is still pretty good. He plays a man trying to return to the real world, driven by love and well, mercy for the rotten people who have manipulated him. And he does get Wilson’s disarming childish nature down- he is so direct that people often feel uncomfortable around him- it is like being around a flayed man- his insides are visible from the outside. I have a very dear friend who plays in Wilson’s band and this is the character he describes to me in real life. So maybe Brian is that unusual and Cusack nailed him.

As one who has three bootleg copies of the 60’s version of "Smile" and who has studied "Pet Sounds" as if it were a holy tome (it is), the accuracy of the musical scenes is spectacular to behold, down to legendary studio guitar whiz Barney Kessel’s weird 12 string/mandolin hybrid that starts the song “Wouldn’t it be Nice”, from “Pet Sounds”. The “Wrecking Crew”, as the studio musicians were called (and the name of a recently released excellent film about them), are portrayed truthfully. There is a nice scene where Hal Blaine, whose drums are on a list of hits far too long to mention, approaches Brian as he is anxious about playing these groundbreaking Pet Sounds tracks for his brothers and cousin. Blaine says to him that he and his studio mates are all jaded musicians who attended conservatories and have played with everybody from Sinatra to Elvis. He also tells him that at first, these old timers who had seen everything were skeptical that this kid knew what he was doing. But he also told him that ultimately their minds were blown- that he, Brian, was a musical genius and that his hero Phil Spector had nothing on him. That is the happiest you see Brian in the film. This section of the film also avoids the tired cliché that drugs did him in, as we see him high on LSD, yet totally in control of the musical process.

There are a number of other nice touches to this film that make it special, such as unusual editing and the way we are allowed to hear the cacophony of sounds that bounce around Brian’s head. Biopics about living musicians are uniformly terrible, usually getting slammed by critics left and right. But I tend to like them. I liked the Doors movie everyone else hated, I even like the made for TV movies about the Beach Boys. So take it with a grain of salt when I say this is a triumph, and that I cried for about half the movie and felt as if I were looking at my own insides. But go see this very decent, lovingly made film about one of the United States’ greatest living treasures and our 20th Century Mozart, Brian Wilson, and his triumph over darkness as he finally receives the love and mercy he always deserved.

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