Love & Mercy

God only knows if 2015 will offer a more incredible biopic.
Movie Review #984


The phrase “you haven’t seen anything like it” has by now lost its meaning, but it applies dead-on to “Love & Mercy”. You really haven’t seen anything like it. Oren Moverman’s script alone is one hell of an achievement. Just how his script, the superb rewrite of an earlier draft by Michael Alan Lerner, worked so perfectly in the hands of Bill Pohlad, a debuting director, is a whole other story.

“Love & Mercy” focuses on two separate periods in the life of Brian Wilson, one of the five founding members of the Beach Boys. We see his 1960s self (Paul Dano) and his 1980s self (John Cusack), intertwined seamlessly into the narrative as parallel stories. One solid chunk of “Love & Mercy” chronicles Brian’s conflict with the band during the mid-1960s. After a manic episode on the band’s private jet, Brian withdraws from touring. He begins to write music obsessively, and it’s clear that he’s trying to create a new sound for the band. He calls his first shot at this Pet Sounds, and once that album is released, it’s him against the world. The critics hate the record. Brian’s fellow bandmates–his two brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love, and their best friend Al Jardine–have begun to feel like his subordinates rather than his fellow Beach Boys. Their producer wants to return to the surf music sound that made the Beach Boys a hit, and abandon Brian’s avant-garde sound. We are enlightened with the sad irony that this is not the village idiot they are bashing, but rather a creative genius who appears to understand the ins and outs of music better than all of them combined.

While the 1960s story is put into the perspective of Brian Wilson, Melinda Ledbetter serves as the main eye for his 1980s self. Elizabeth Banks turns in a stellar performance as Ledbetter, Wilson’s girlfriend (and later wife). An earlier draft of the “Love & Mercy” script was called “Heroes & Villains”, and that title materializes on an emotional level during this portion of the story. As we begin to fall head over heels for Brian and Melinda, we begin to loathe Brian’s caretaker, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When meeting Melinda at the car dealership where she works, during the film’s first scene, Brian refers to Dr. Landy as his “bodyguard.” We soon realize how far from the truth this is. Dr. Landy was hired after Brian’s bout of manic depression, and his attitude toward his patient ranges from overprotective and distrusting to threatening and abusive.

I could go on for hours elaborating on how much I loved watching the relationship between Brian and Melinda develop, and how it pained me when Dr. Landy interfered. How much I loved the notion that Brian always made sure his ideas were number one, and yet was incredibly humble when it came to recognizing his music as great. How I found myself reminded of Brian’s utter brilliance during the moments that Paul Dano portrayed him, and how I found myself falling in love with the utter sincerity of his character when portrayed by John Cusack. The Brian Wilson we meet in “Love & Mercy” is goal-oriented in Dano’s vision of the character, and charismatic in Cusack’s. It’s taken into account that Brian suffers paranoid schizophrenia, but this never seems to stymie him in any way at all. (In fact, when he is writing the music for Pet Sounds, Brian intends to incorporate some of the voices he hears in his head as part of the music.) “Love & Mercy” shows us Brian Wilson as the person he truly is, rather than how others might see him. His behavior can at times be socially unacceptable, as a result of his mental state, but he’s still an incredibly sweet guy. He’s definitely notable as one of the Beach Boys, but in his own right, he’s also a musical genius.

Half of “Love & Mercy” is one of the most beautiful Romeo and Juliet stories I have ever seen. I say this with complete appreciation for this plot as both a faithful biography and a creatively adjusted narrative. The theme of forbidden love seldom feels so real as it does between Brian and Melinda. The other half is to 1960s pop music what “Amadeus” was to 18th century classical music–the tale of a brilliant maverick whose artistry wasn’t always recognized as such in its time. (Years later, of course, Pet Sounds is considered one of the greatest rock LPs ever to materialize.) Wilson has every song complexly mapped out in his head throughout the Pet Sounds sessions, as well as the Smile sessions that followed. Atticus Ross’s score illustrates his envisioning of various songs quite vividly. His compositions imitate the complex sound that Wilson envisions, placing is one step further into his psyche. With the added effect of surround sound, Ross’s score acquires a hallucinogenic vibe. We hear these protocompositions as clusters of mismatched, dampened sounds. They certainly call for the utterly radical approach Brian takes when he hits the studio to record the instrumental backings: he orders practically everything from electric guitars to French horns to flutes to sleigh bells to bicycle bells to barking dogs.

Eight years after “I’m Not There.”, Oren Moverman has once again twisted the conventions of the biopic genre. This time, though, he’s struck pure gold. “Love & Mercy” adheres to the common “rise-fall-rise” progression that has become common in biopics, but it separates what could have otherwise functioned as one narrative into two parallel narratives. If “Love & Mercy” were told in a linear fashion, Dano’s story would account for the initial “rise-fall” progression, and Cusack’s would for the final “rise.” But the beauty of this movie (or part of it) is that it’s not told that way at all.