Another true-life story of tortured musical genius, you say? Before you scurry off in fear of a tidal wave of familiarity, let us establish a context. The genius in question in Love and Mercy is Brian Wilson, the founder-member of the Beach Boys whose creative energy led the band to the top of the charts, and whose mental decline proved a tragic counterpoint to lively compositions like ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. Therein lies the key to Love and Mercy’s success; the jolly songs you know offer a way into a story you may have heard only in fragments of rumour.”
Eschewing a straightforward ‘from birth’ narrative, director Bill Pohlad uses Love and Mercy’s opening credits to set the scene. The young Wilson (Paul Dano) is at the heart of goings-on, as the band has their early successes, with candy-striped shirts and beach promo shoots. All seems rosy, as scenes shot in 16mm film always appear to be. Then, cut to harsh reality. In 1985, a now-older Wilson (John Cusack) is shopping for a Cadillac. There is no joy in this older man’s eyes. He shuffles and mumbles his way through a sale, when a blue calm surrounds him. First is a new blue Cadillac, and then comes saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter. As played by Elizabeth Banks, this vision in a sapphire dress offers a smile that cuts through any misery, however briefly. Their initial introduction/sales pitch is interrupted by Wilson’s legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti and a terrifying combover wig. Naturally, Melinda’s and our initial curiosity in Wilson is only further compounded by this development, but then we cut back to Dano’s younger Wilson to fill in some of the story.
The script, by Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner, continually jumps back and forth between Wilson’s past and future selves. As structural gambits go, it’s not only enlightening, but necessary. It automatically makes Love and Mercy more ambitious and less rote than Ray or Walk The Line. It’s a clever structure, linking the traumas of the past to the griefs of the future. The transitions are not random, unlike those of Dahan’s La Vie En Rose. From Wilson’s car shopping, we jump to many years before as he suffers a panic attack on a jet on the way to a performance. Future effect and past cause are linked. This attack marks the point at which Wilson decides to step back from the band and focus on composing what would ultimately become Pet Sounds. This period in Wilson’s life is brought to Technicolour life by DoP Robert Yeoman. As reflected in the warm browns and beiges of his recording studio, Wilson’s clearly at his happiest when composing and experimenting with new sound textures. Dano delivers the star turn of the film; whether plucking piano wires with bobby pins or performing ‘God Only Knows’ for his less-than-impressed manager father (Bill Camp), he conveys the joy of composition that drove Wilson to find the band’s biggest hits. Pohlad injects these early days with a comforting soulfulness; this is genius at work, and it’s gifted the respect it deserves.
This is in sharp contrast to Cusack’s older version, an over-medicated mess lorded over by Dr. Landy. We learn the extent of Wilson’s condition as Ledbetter does; their dates are supervised by Landy and/or his goons, whilst the energy and creativity that defined the younger Wilson is long gone. The film reaches its emotional apex as we watch the broken down Wilson not just be lectured, but shouted at, by Dr. Landy. What Cusack lacks in resemblance to Dano, he makes up for with a sympathetically nervous and quiet turn. By his side is Banks, whose 1000-watt smile lights up the film in its darkest moments. Love and Mercy is quietly affecting in its portrait of Wilson’s mental decline, though it does mean Landy is (arguably necessarily) reduced to a villain role. Love and Mercy’s focus is purely on Wilson and Ledbetter, so some characters end up getting short shrift. This is none more evident in the portrayals of the rest of the band. The only one who gets much in the way of definition is Mike Love (Jake Abel), and his motivation is simply to move Wilson out of the band when his behaviour begins to turn erratic. Dano and Pohlad work to battle such basic characterizations, but considering co-writer Moverman also co-wrote Todd Haynes’ Dylan curio I’m Not There, a bit more bite and shading wouldn’t have hurt.
Good vibrations, then, if not quite great.