“Love & Mercy”
2 hours, 1 minute
It’s ironic, but biopics for musicians can tend to feel a little one-note. From “Walk the Line,” to “Ray,” or “Get on Up,” to “La Bamba,” they all kind of feel like they could be the same movie. Judd Apatow even produced a pretty spot-on send up of these films, “Walk Hard,” that makes that point exactly.
“The Doors” had a different feel, but it’s a given that any movie about Jim Morrison, starring Val Kilmer and directed by Oliver Stone is going to be a little hallucinatory. However, it too, sticks with the same basic structure.
This week I saw a beautiful film that throws out this traditional structure to get at a deeper, more intimate portrait of the artist. The story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, “Love & Mercy” is amazing.
The film opens with John Cusack, as the slow moving, uncertain and slightly twitchy Wilson, lying down in the front seat of a car in a Cadillac dealership. Saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, beautifully performed by Elizabeth Banks, approaches and gently begins the process of selling this strange man a car.
The sale turns out to be stranger still as their conversation ranges all over the place before being interrupted by a smiling man in a track suit accompanied by two helpers. This is Eugene Landy, Wilson’s psychiatrist, who proceeds to completely take over the conversation, steering Brian away from Melinda and leading him out of the office.
When the bewildered saleswoman returns to the car she had been attempting to sell, she finds a hastily scrawled note which reads: “Sad. Lonely. Frightened.” Later Brian calls Melinda and asks her out, but to her surprise, this date includes Dr. Landy and co. It turns out that Brian is completely under the control of Landy who monitors his activities 24-hours a day as an extreme form of therapy. Landy appears in Wilson’s life during a particularly low period where the musician spent most of his time in bed and had ballooned to over 300 pounds. The doctor’s treatment had brought Wilson back from the brink, but then things changed. Landy’s attitude sways from condescension to anger and his sway over Wilson is total, denying him contact with his mother, brothers, or even his two daughters from his first marriage. He even insists on approving Melinda, though this approval is contingent that she give detailed reports of her and Brian’s every interaction.
Woven in between Brian’s intensifying relationship with Melinda are scenes from the early days of The Beach Boys. It would be unfair to call these flashbacks, however, as the movie is split pretty evenly. Here Wilson is played by a young, open-faced Paul Dano. The main songwriter for the already established group, which includes Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis, and cousin Mike Love, Wilson’s job is to craft the band’s sound.
However, the touring schedule is proving too much for the sensitive songwriter who, with panic attacks and voices in his head, is just beginning to show signs of the mental illness that would haunt his later life. He asks for permission to stay home and work on the next album, leaving the touring and the crowds to the others.
That next album, “Pet Sounds,” proves to be more than just a collection of catchy hits, however. It has been called the greatest rock ‘n roll album of all time, including such classics as “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” and “Wouldn’t it be Nice.” Wilson, struggling to get at the music that was bursting out of his head, treated the studio space and its musicians as his own instrument, playing them off each other in unexpected ways and adding such strange elements as howling dogs and bobby-pins on the piano strings that chaos seemed assured.
On the contrary, Wilson’s sound was complex and revelatory. Too complex, however, for his bandmates and the listening public of the time. “Pet Sounds” underperformed and the rest of the band was eager to get back to the tried and true formula of money-making hits. Whether it was the toll the album took, or just the times, Brian Wilson began to experiment with harder and harder drugs facilitating his long downward slide.
Much of what I’ve written makes the film sound depressing, but on the contrary, what I think resonated with me was the overwhelming sense of compassion and kindness that is the end result of Wilson’s nearly tragic tale. “Love & Mercy” is a perfect title for the film because, while Paul Giamatti’s Landy is certainly villainous, it’s the characters that shepherd and try to take care of Brian Wilson that appear most vividly.
I especially loved the scenes in the studio — Brian struggling to express this complex music and the musicians, the prolific studio players “The Wrecking Crew,” propping him up all the way. At a low moment, one of them confides, “We’ve worked with everybody from Elvis to Sinatra to Phil Spector. But you’re blowing our minds.”
Bank’s Melinda comes off like an angel, not because she has any big, heroic moments, but because the kindness she shows is so transformative.
I loved “Love & Mercy.” It throws out the old biopic formula and focuses on two important periods — periods in Brian Wilson’s life that would inform his entire life. It portrays mental illness in a particularly sensitive way, showing that it can be debilitating, but also that Wilson’s creative genius is somehow wrapped up in it as well.
And unlike so many artists through the ages, Wilson’s story shows that this condition, when managed and approached with compassion and empathy doesn’t have to be destructive. As an added bonus, Cusack gives the performance of his career — one of the few times you actually see the actor playing anyone but a veiled version of himself. The film is a triumph and definitely worth seeking out.
“Love & Mercy” is rated PG-13 for language, mature themes, and some drug use.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.