Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: July 10th
There’s an anecdote in Catch a Wave, Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, which illustrates the complex relationship that Wilson continues to have with the band and the music that has defined his entire adult life. The year is 1970 – the beginning of Brian’s disastrous ‘bedroom decade’ that Love & Mercy decides to leave to the viewer’s imagination – and the band’s leader/primary songwriter wants to change the band’s name. They’re not boys any more, Brian argues, and the music they’ve been producing is too different to the surf pop they made their name with. He proposes ‘The Beach’ as a new band name. His bandmates are universally opposed to the idea. Brian leaves the paperwork on top of his piano, but the only signature on it is his own. The Beach Boys remain The Beach Boys, as they always will.
Given that they share a screenwriter (Oren Moverman) and a central casting conceit (one ‘60s musical icon, multiple actors), it’s very easy to make a surface-level comparison between Love & Mercy and Todd Haynes’s 2007 kinda-biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. But while there are certainly comparisons to be made, the casting stunt serves a very different purpose in the two films. In I’m Not There, the various sides of Dylan aren’t meant to be compatible, something reflected in the eclectic selection of main performers; the ‘real’ Dylan doesn’t exist, the film argues, and you’re mistaken if you think you can find anything more than an assortment of conflicting personas.
On the other hand, Brian Wilson is simply Brian Wilson, and he always will be – it’s just not always clear who Brian Wilson is. (Love & Mercy’s climactic sequence is soundtracked by ‘Til I Die’, quite possibly Wilson’s artistic high point, with its refrain: ‘these things I’ll be until I die.’) Casting two actors to play him is less an attempt to draw out multiple personalities in its subject then, and more a clever way to underline what’s at stake in the film’s central narrative throughline: the burned-out and over-medicated Brian from the late 1980s (John Cusack) finding his way back to the man he was in the 1960s, and still is (Paul Dano).
All links between Brian Future and Brian Past – as Cusack and Dano are respectively billed in the credits – have been severed by his therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, who may as well be twirling a moustache whenever he’s on screen). He hasn’t seen his children in two years, he hasn’t seen his mother in three, and the rest of the Boys are nowhere to be seen (or heard, with the exception of one awkward moment involving ‘Sloop John B’). It’s only with the help of Cadillac saleswoman and Brian’s future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played with graceful restraint by Elizabeth Banks), that Wilson will be able to escape Landy and reconnect to his early life and work. As a result, Love & Mercy ends up being not so much about a cliché journey of self-discovery as it is a journey of self-recovery; and given that Brian’s story has been a succession of people trying to tell him who he is, from his abusive father Murry and philistine bandmate Mike Love demanding he stick to surf pop formula all the way to Landy’s control over him in the ’80s, that process of recovery is hard-earned.
Taking such an unorthodox approach to telling this story naturally piles the pressure on its twin leads: the challenge is to convince the viewer they’re watching the same man for the film’s running time, while still remaining distinct enough to keep us from thinking that Dano in old man makeup would do a better job in both roles. Both actors pull it off magnificently. Apparently director Bill Pohlad kept Dano and Cusack separate on set so they wouldn’t end up imitating each other, which makes their shared tics and body language pretty miraculous – Cusack overcomes the minor hurdle of not resembling Wilson in any way whatsoever to produce his best performance in years, and Dano is even better. They almost start looking like each other after a while, which is an uncanny testament to how they completely inhabit the role without lapsing into cheap caricature or awards bait overacting.
Pohlad does a good job of making the two time periods distinct from one another, though he lacks the visual flair that Haynes brought to I’m Not There. There are a few exceptions – a clever reconstruction of the ‘Sloop John B’ promo video, the use of grainy 16mm to document the infamous sessions for SMiLE’s ‘The Elements (Fire)’ – but you can’t help but wish for a little more invention when things get really strange for Brian in the late ’60s, particularly with Wes Anderson regular Robert D. Yeoman behind the camera as cinematographer. (There’s plenty of authentic period detail in each frame though, and Beach Boys fanatics will have fun spotting the numerous references throughout.)
But it’s sound that is at the heart of Love & Mercy, and few films in recent times have sounded better than this. The songs are obviously glorious – we’re talking about pretty much the pinnacle of the three-minute pop song as a medium here, and songs like ‘God Only Knows’ or ‘Good Vibrations’ resonate just as deeply as chord progressions on a piano as they do in their completed form – but the sound design is exceptional as well. The sounds in Brian’s head, which could easily come off as ridiculous if the film’s execution is off, are instead carefully weaved into the soundtrack in ways that are often surprising; a particularly memorable dinner scene, soundtracked by clanking cutlery, succeeds in putting you inside Brian Wilson’s head for an excruciating minute or so. It’s all tied together by the film’s score, composed by Trent Reznor/David Fincher collaborator Atticus Ross, which samples fragments of Beach Boys demo tapes and vocal takes to make a dynamic sound collage.
Over the end credits, we get some contemporary footage of the man himself in concert, performing ‘Love and Mercy’. It calls back to a shared moment between Brian and Melinda earlier in the film, where the chord progression for the song comes to him while they sit together at his piano. It came to mind when he saw her, he attempts to explain. Just as it was in the ’60s, his gift for melody is the way to transcend his struggle to communicate with the people around him. After the truly harrowing life that Brian Wilson has lived – and the film admirably refuses to sugarcoat or give it the Hollywood biopic treatment – that concert clip feels like an earned victory rather than a tacked-on happy conclusion. Love & Mercy’s achievement is to illustrate something quietly profound, heroic even (if ‘heroic’ isn’t too crass a word), in the man’s endurance: despite everything, Brian Wilson remains Brian Wilson.