Film originally seen at Seattle International Film Festival ’15.
It’s no mystery that Brian Wilson was a tortured soul. Look no further than single “Heroes and Villains”, originally released on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and peel back the oily layer of Wilson’s lyrical metaphors to glance into the depths of his tortured soul. In the tune’s restless battlescape, cowboys and indians facing off in a dust-blown shanty town stood in for the forces of “good” and “evil” he saw himself trapped between. A perennial internal tug-of-war born from his turbulent upbringing and inbred insecurity. Psychedelics informed much of Wilson’s Pet Sounds/Smile era – and would later lead to a misdiagnosis that was almost the end of the pop genius – and allowed Wilson the power to probe the darkest corners of his painful past with bright melodies and rich orchestral arrangements. Similarly, Love & Mercy is dark and tender – like a good chunk of turkey – journey into deeper meaning; a filmic psychoanalysis of a man balancing on piano wire at the height of his fame and fortune.
The product of physical and emotional abuse, Wilson’s tightly wound brain transformed years of emotional coal into sparkling diamonds of psych rock which director Bill Pohlad is able to plant us front and center for. Wilson’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis from meek frontman to a man behind the curtain, masterfully pulling levers and pushing knows while filled with doubt and longing, is heartbreaking and inspiring; a cross section of the interplay of tidal talent and dubious sanity.
Pohlad’s approach is two-pronged, telling Wilson’s story from the 60s (with Paul Dano as Wilson) and the 80s (with John Cusack depicting the troubled pop star). Both examine critical junctions in Wilson’s life and career before and after going textbook mad and lounging in PJs for three years. John Lennon planted himself in bed for peace. Wilson did it from a place of stifling insecurity and raw, unbridled insanity. Or so says over-involved personal psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a somewhat one dimensional character who develops into the film’s overtly chilly antagonist; the candle snuff for Wilson’s bright flame.
Through Pohlad’s multiple time period piece structure, we get a sense of both the evolution of this particular man and of men in general. Though Wilson’s trials and tribulations are specific to his journey, Pohlad touches on strained father-son relationships with a kind of woeful melancholy that will be sure to touch many. And in many ways, Love & Mercy alludes to the making and breaking power of these father figure relationships Brian developed throughout his life.
Wilson’s actual father, played to defaming perfection by Bill Camp, was a physically abusive brunt force. Though he took the belt to his children, he didn’t spare them the emotional companion piece of tearing them down psychologically – particularly Brian. In a tender moment, a Brian sitting out of a Japanese Beach Boys tour to develop new songs plays an early draft of “God Only Knows” for his father. Him being a jealous cod, the senior Wilson ruthlessly tears it apart, calling it nothing short of an abomination. Rolling Stone, who voted it the 25th greatest song of all time, obviously wouldn’t agree. Later in life, Wilson adopts the reproachful Landy as a surrogate father figure, as if craving the emotional manipulation and systematic degradation now absent after his father’s death. Their relationship proves just as poisonous.
Polhad, aided by an articulate script from Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, is able to extrapolate much from his two hours of film, giving an objective though personal filter of a man’s desperate pleas for artist freedom and interpersonal peace couched in an overarching air of loss. His musical genius set to “cripple” and his friends and family dissolving in and out of the frame around him, Wilson makes for as tragic a musical figure as any but there’s a semblance of turning tides and sprouting hope that make Love & Mercy stand out from the musical biopic pack. This isn’t just about a man, this is about an era, a feeling, a lifestyle and dark secrets.
Dano is made to play Wilson; his jerky physicality and twitchy but illuminating emotional idiosyncrasies match up perfectly with Wilson’s nervous energy and crackling intellect. A moment of obvious metaphorical value, Dano’s Wilson floats in the deep end of a swimming pool, beckoning his band mates to join him so they can discuss a cut from Smiley Smile. His band, spurred on by the inimical Mike Love (Jake Abel), try and convince him to come back to the shallow side, antagonizing Wilson’s out-of-the-box efforts and unsuccessfully trying to persuade him to return to the bubblegum poppiness of surf music past. But Wilson’s decided done with their shallowness and Dano communicates such with faint, stoned persistence. Even behind sunglasses, you know he’s rolling his eyes. A lesser performance would have let such a scene turn to anecdotal hokum but Dano’s psychedelic wanderlust matched with stern convictions make it potent and thematically gooey.
Cusack’s turn as Wilson is addled by pertinent design. The Brian Wilson of the 80s is a shell of a man; a prescription pill voodoo doll in the eight figure club. Scenes played out with new love interest Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) reveal a raw emotional side guard-dogged by Landy’s invisible swatting hand and make for some difficult watching. Cusack’s performance suggests depth but sometimes struggles to find it. The Wilson of the 80s is decidedly more batty and beaten than his 60s counterpart but that’s all part of Polhad’s twisted evolution. This is a man at the end of his rope, hanging by a thread of a hollowed out life. Cusack’s better than he’s been in a while but he can’t match the haunting nature of Dano’s superior performance.
Turning the shadowy undertones of the film into blistering hot pockets of fear and doubt is master composer Atticus Ross, offering a screeching score that amplifies the darkness until it’s nothing short of all encompassing. As much as musical biopics have seemingly run their course, Love & Mercy arrives to plot a new direction, one that is fearlessly specific in its design and yet isn’t afraid to touch on dark cultural cornerstones, and is all the more powerful for it. Both those unfamiliar with Wilson and his most devout fans will find much to praise in this unconventional piece of artistic biography as it works as both a film and a lovingly issued dedication.