Music biopics can be perilously tricky affairs. Far too often, they come across merely as karaoke reruns of the original events and only a very few ever succeed (or even bother) to try and probe beneath the shiny surface. Happily, Love and Mercy belongs in the latter category. Bill Pohlad’s film offers two Brian Wilsons for the price of one.
In the 1960’s-set first strand, a bulked up Paul Dano does an uncanny job of portraying pop music’s most celebrated tortured genius, complete with the chubby bewildered features and the pudding basin haircut. The recreations of the band’s early concerts and TV appearances are uncannily accurate. After the Beachboys’ initial successes with their surfing songs, Brian suffers a debilitating panic attack on an airplane, and elects to stay in the studio and create music while the rest of the band head off to Japan on tour.
In the second, 1990’s-set strand, we meet another Brian Wilson, post nervous breakdown and in the clutches of bullying psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti in a fright wig, looking strangely like Melvyn Bragg.) In these sequences, Brian is played by John Cusack, who is of course a very accomplished actor – but he looks nothing like Wilson, or for that matter, Dano. The conclusion has to be that the director was trying to make a statement about his subject’s schizophrenic nature but I couldn’t help feeling that he’d have done better to stick with Dano throughout.
Once the two time frames are established the film cuts effortlessly back and forth, between two major stories. In the 60’s, Brian’s mounting confusion alienates him from his fellow band members and family – but here the film manages to nail the creative process of recording better than most other films I’ve seen. It’s wonderful to watch as a pop masterpiece like God Only Knows is assembled virtually note by note, before finally blossoming into the sublime finished product we know and love.
In the second storyline, a heavily sedated Brian, always accompanied by Landy and his henchmen, wanders into a car showroom to purchase a Cadillac and makes a connection with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks.) The two of them start to date and Melinda quickly begins to realise that Brian is under Landy’s control, every bit as much as he suffered under the tyranny of his abusive father, Murray. But how can she extricate him from his self-inflicted woes? And does Brian even want to be rescued?
This is by no means a perfect film, but it’s intriguing and compelling enough to keep you hooked to the end and there’s some fabulous sounds to enjoy along the way. At the film’s conclusion we get the added bonus of the real Brian Wilson performing the wistful song from which the film takes its title. You don’t have to be a Beachboys fan, but it certainly helps.