Love & Mercy (2015)

1 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember listening to Beach Boys songs when I was a little boy. My parents, as well as cheesy cover bands/children’s entertainers, introduced me to these catchy tunes and even gave me a cassette tape to listen to (and eventually wear out). Good Vibrations. Don’t Worry Baby. Surfin’ USA. Little Deuce Coupe. I Get Around. Help Me Rhonda. Wouldn’t It Be Nice. These were all among the many Beach Boys singles I enjoyed listening to then and still enjoy now. And as I got older, I got into their deeper pieces, especially “God Only Knows,” which is undoubtedly one of their best. And now, with “Love & Mercy,” Bill Pohlad’s biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, I realize I may know their music but I knew practically nothing about what into making the music and what Wilson went through in his life.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was a young, ambitious artist with numerous ideas (possibly too much for him to handle) that led to taking the Beach Boys from catchy surf-themed hits to more detailed, trippy, beautiful works, some of which were ahead of their time. He was also helplessly strung out on drugs, which led to paranoia, schizophrenia, and alienation. For many years since, he would live in a state of awkward arrested development until the woman who would become his second wife helped him out of it.

“Love & Mercy” tells two parallel stories back and forth; one of Brian Wilson at his creative heights, the other of Brian Wilson well after his successes. One story, set in the 1960s (roughly 1965-1968), begins as Brian (played as a young man by Paul Dano) starts to hear voices in his head. He tells his brothers, fellow Beach Boys Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald), it’s because he has so many ideas on his mind that he simply has to let out. While the band is on tour, Brian stays behind to work in the studio, making new music and intending to make “the greatest album ever made.” His new pieces, including the offbeat “Pet Sounds,” are unusual, innovative, and one might say “unusually innovative,” but neither of them are becoming hits, which angers Beach Boys co-founder/singer Mike Love (Jake Abel). Meanwhile, his grip on reality loosens when the voices in his head attempt to overtake him and his addiction to drugs becomes worse and worse…

The other story, set in the 1980s, shows a middle-aged, broken, confused Brian (played this time by John Cusack) under the pharmacological care of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). He meets a Cadillac saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and starts to date her. She notices the grip Landy has on Brian and how he’s using it to his advantage, and so she tries to help him.

The film is really two movies in one, and they both work equally well. Granted, the story involving Brian in his Beach Boys involvement is arguably the most engaging, but the present-day story is very strong and intriguing in the way Brian behaves in his lost state, and we’re genuinely hoping he finds himself again. These two stories intersect effectively, showing two kinds of developments: creative and personal. We wonder how Brian got from who he was in the past to who he is now (or rather, the 1980s, when the “present-day” is set) and we hope he finds his way again.

That’s the ultimate power of “Love & Mercy,” which is without a doubt one of the best musical biopics I’ve ever seen. The film is not only a loving tribute to the Beach Boys, but it’s also a compelling portrait of a tortured artist whose career doesn’t always work out well for him, and it shows that in a non-condescending manner. In other words, it doesn’t take the easy way out, like most music biopics. Even when there’s a triumph, it’s quick and low-key.

But the film is also a lot of fun when it’s paying tribute to the Beach Boys. It opens with a glorious montage of the Boys in their heyday, recording, performing, and having fun (on the beach, of course). It takes us behind-the-scenes on the creation of pieces such as “God Only Knows,” “Pet Sounds,” “Good Vibrations,” among others. The actors portraying the other Boys are credible in their roles, especially Jake Abel who makes a very convincing Mike Love. And the attention to detail is simply marvelous—for example, I love how Brian’s practice piano is in a circle of sand in his living room.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the cinematography and editing in many of these sequences. Among the scenes that stick out in my mind is a scene in which Brian, as a young man, is playing a rough piano version of “God Only Knows” and singing nervously, presumably to himself—the camera spins slowly around the piano as he’s performing until it stops to reveal his father (played by Bill Camp), sitting on a nearby sofa and listening. That leads into a hurtful scene in which Brian’s father criticizes Brian harshly and Brian pathetically tries to counter-argue. Suddenly, that tracking shot makes a lot more sense. As for editing, I admire the way the film shows passages of time through the band’s art, such as with the montage, the making of “Good Vibrations,” and Brian’s downward spiral, among others. The film is technically brilliant.

This is the best performance I’ve seen from Paul Dano, an actor I’ve admired many times due to his performances in films such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks.” Not only does he look right for the part, slightly resembling the real Brian Wilson—he feels right. He does such an incredible job of capturing the man’s increasingly peculiar convulsions and characteristics. John Cusack is just as good, capturing the right speech patterns and somewhat childish ways of exposing secrets from his past.

I’ve seen “Love & Mercy” four times now, and I don’t think I can forgive the Academy for passing up this truly superb film, to be honest. I would’ve put Paul Dano in either one of 3-4 slots in the Best Actor category—that’s not a slam against the nominees but a statement of how strongly I felt about this performance. Maybe an Editing nomination, a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, a Sound Editing nomination, or even a Beat Director nomination would have been warranted. Maybe Academy members should have seen the movie more than once. As for me, I will never listen to a Beach Boys song the same way again.

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