You don’t have to be a Beach Boys acolyte to be transfixed by Love and Mercy, the structurally ambitious new biopic of Brian Wilson from director Bill Pohlhad. Switching between dual timelines, one at the height of Wilson’s fame in the sixties, the other during the medicated fugue of his life in the eighties, this superb film meditates beautifully on music, madness, and manipulation.
Review by Katrina Conaglen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
A jaunty beginning gives a potted account of the Beach Boys’ early success: Paul Dano portrays Wilson in the sixties strain, gadding about with his fellow band members and racking up number one hits with tidy little ditties about surfing and girls. Things start unravelling for Wilson as he sets about crafting his new album, Pet Sounds.
There’s terrific fun to be had in the freewheeling, frenzied scenes of its creation, with Wilson utilising unorthodox methods for creating a layered melange of sound: “Hey Chuck, do you think we could get a horse in here?” These whimsical procedures start to alienate him from his band members, however, and perhaps signal an underlying distress.
A leap ahead to Wilson in the 80s (John Cusack) finds him far more troubled: trying to buy a Cadillac, he’s spaced out, schlubby, and decidedly odd. His “doctor” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti in creepy Svengali mode) keeps close watch as he talks to car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, very strong in an atypically dramatic role). When Wilson compulsively writes “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” on the back of Ledbetter’s business card, she’s intrigued and worried, drawn to a man in deep suffering.
Dano edges past Cusack to deliver the more convincing portrait of Wilson: Dano’s sad-eye, manic presence has never been put to better use, while Cusack, twitchy and naive, occasionally edges towards the too-broad. He’s good, but you never forget you’re watching Cusack.
Jumping between two timelines comes rife with its own potential pitfalls: there’s the danger that one era will prove more compelling than the other and that seeing Wilson in the eighties might render our time with the sixties’ incarnation largely redundant.
But neither of these hazards come to pass: scenes of the earlier time enrich our understanding of where Wilson ended up. There are tragic echoes in Wilson’s life – as a younger man, he was bullied and beaten by his domineering, jealous producer father (who sold the rights to the Beach Boy’s back catalogue for next to nothing, robbing Wilson of potential millions), so when you later see Wilson under the thumb of the odious Landy (who keeps Wilson permanently over-medicated as a means of controlling his every move) you realise lesser men were quick to exploit Wilson’s fragility in the service of their own pockets all his life.
We are also mercifully spared the usual bland scenes that would result from a more blow-by-blow linear biopic, such as the breakdown of Wilson’s first marriage, or the three years he spent catatonic in bed.
A fascinating look at a bona fide musical genius and the heart-breaking abuses he suffered.