Looking Back at 2010s Films: Love & Mercy (2015)

4 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, there are two movies in “Love & Mercy.” Movie 1 is a tragic story about a famous musician/producer who lets mental illness and drugs get the better of him. Movie 2 is a redemptive story set a couple of decades later as he gets help putting his life back together again.

Movie 2 is very solid and well-acted, with effective dramatic structure. But Movie 1 is one of my favorite films of the decade.

The man in question is Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Unlike most biopics that try to put so much about one person into one movie, “Love & Mercy” made the brilliant choice of focusing on only a few points of Brian Wilson’s life–creating the album “Pet Sounds,” experimenting with drugs, giving in to his inner demons, and then being rescued so he can start over again.

That’s it–we don’t even see how The Beach Boys came together, had their first big break, blah blah blah, and so forth. Instead, we’re treated to an opening-credits montage of The Beach Boys in their glory days in the 1960s–performing at wild concerts, playing at the beach while also partaking in photo shoots, playing for live TV, and recording in the studio, while we also get a sense of how creative Brian is behind the scenes. This is BRILLIANT–well-edited, fun, gives us enough material to start with, and something I could watch again and again (which I have).

Movie 1, as you may have guessed, focuses on Brian’s Pet Sounds/Good Vibrations days. On the plane ride home from another Beach Boys tour, Brian (Paul Dano) suffers a panic attack and tells his brothers, Carl and Dennis, that it’s because he has these “sounds” in his head that he desperately wants to put into a new album, possibly so that the sounds will leave his head afterward. So, while the rest of the group is on another tour, Brian stays home and is hard at work in the studio with numerous musicians (“studio musicians–the best in the world”), coming up with new tracks with new musical techniques.

They create what would become well-known classics like God Only Knows and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but for all the band knows, they’re just creating nonsense that no one will buy. (“It’s not the Beach Boys,” argues Mike Love, played very well by Jake Abel.) And all the pressure starts to get to Brian, as he starts to hear strange, unusual, scary voices in his head that only drugs such as LSD can subdue. He also grows more paranoid, which leads to him becoming a shut-in and ultimately spending his time away from the band.

“Love & Mercy” intercuts Movie 1 and Movie 2 together (not very flawlessly–sometimes, it gets to be a little random when a shift happens). Movie 2 is set in 1987, where Brian Wilson (now played by John Cusack) is under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, sporting a not-particularly-convincing wig–I wonder if it’s supposed to be or not). But when Brian dates a pretty car salesman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), she notices just how tightly Landy’s grip is on Brian, and she feels the need to try and get him out of it.

Movie 2 is real good and all, but Movie 1 is just more interesting to me. I love watching the creative process, as Brian puts together all these new songs in the recording studio and he tries everything he can possibly think of to remain creative and innovative. I like seeing the Beach Boys interact together, whether they’re recording or goofing off in the control room or arguing about what the songs are about or whatever.

Paul Dano turns in an excellent performance as young Brian Wilson. He’s goofy, he’s likable, he’s troubled, he’s excited, and he’s in trouble but doesn’t quite know it yet. It’s hard not to feel anything for this guy.

And even though I already picked on the editing for the shifts from Movie 1 to Movie 2 and then back to 1 again, the editing WITHIN Movie 1 is pretty effective. An example–they show the progress of creating a new song while in the same rhythm of the very song.

Whether you’re a fan of The Beach Boys or not (I am), I think “Love & Mercy” delivers “good vibrations.”

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