(4 / 5)
Has there been any sub-genre of drama more reliable in recent years than the music biopic?
They give the chance for charismatic character actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard to take on larger-than-life personalities undergoing the trials and tribulations of fame and fortune. And, of course, you’re guaranteed a great soundtrack (unless you count recent Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side).
As an exploration of the life and music of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy is closer to the experimental Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, particularly in its use of two separate actors — Paul Dano and John Cusack — to portray Wilson at different points during his life and career.
Dano plays Wilson circa 1964 when a panic attack abroad a plane led him to retire from performing live at the height of the band’s success. Moon-faced and with a queasy smile, Dano bears a striking resemblance to the man himself, working on the seminal album Pet Sounds — which, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”, inspired Bill Pohlad to direct Love & Mercy — while teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Cusack, meanwhile, is the ‘80s incarnation, hollow-cheeked and with distant eyes, who seems initially to be on the road to recovery from some serious personal crisis.
Surrounded by mostly interchangeable brothers and band mates — apart from the slightly scornful Mike Love (Jake Abel) — ’60s Brian is revealed as an unassuming musical genius. Love & Mercy’s greatest triumph is its insight into Brian’s creative process, his work in the recording studio and ability to compose on the fly. A slightly pudgy, immensely liable figure, his reaction to being mentioned in the same breath as Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke is almost hysterical incredulity: “Better than Phil Spector?”
Young Brian’s father and former manager, Murry (Bill Camp) — pipe-smoking and bespectacled — is a looming presence in his life, lurking in corners with his glass of whiskey or popping in to flaunt his latest Beach Boys clone. And then there are the voices; the snatches of music with which the films opens, transforming into the soaring harmonies that remain astonishing even now.
The older Brian’s life is one notably lacking in melody, instead focusing on the budding relationship between him and future wife Melissa Ledbetter (a radiantly caring Elizabeth Banks). While Dano holds the screen almost single-handedly, the gentle chemistry between Cusack and Banks is intruded upon by Brian’s legal guardian, smug, self-promoting tyrant Dr. Eugene Landy (a monstrous Paul Giamatti), who keeps Brian medicated up the wazoo while living in his primary home.
The spacey, soft-spoken man-child here bears little resemblance to Dano’s troubled prodigy, just as Cusack’s charming noodling at the piano is a million miles from the mellow perfectionism on display in bringing together “Good Vibrations” (Dano apparently learned to play piano for this film and it makes all the difference).
While Dano plunges into a pool like a dead-eyed Nirvana baby, Cusack and Banks make an adventurous escape overboard — a mooted third segment with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the bed-bound Brian during his lost years would have provided some much-needed connective tissue. Seeking to bridge the divide, things veer, fortuitously briefly, into empty dreamlike symbolism, which instead only serves to highlight the disconnect. Pohlad shoots the film in vaguely docudrama style, his camera peeking out from doorways, complimented by Robert Yeoman’s cinematography.
Still, even if the use of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is almost comically cheesy, Love & Mercy sidesteps the majority of the cliches that have come to define the genre (memorably parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) — for instance, Brian’s recreational drug use is never shown as a particular matter for concern.
Though never quite reaching the heights of the music it documents, Dano and Cusack’s not entirely harmonious take on its subject ensure that Love & Mercy is still well worth hearing out.