Photo credit: Francois Duhamel
Early on in Love & Mercy, the middle-aged Brian Wilson of the 1980s phones up a car saleswoman he’s just met, Melinda (a luminous Elizabeth Banks), and says, “Hi, it’s Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys.” It’s a fact he was coy about acknowledging when they first met, but it works as a good, if funny, identifier. When asked why he was initially reluctant to own this, he comments that fame and all that is just “ego stuff,” because what matters is the work. That emphasis on craft as the ultimate achievement is an admirable one that’s becoming increasingly a part of how we talk about musical greatness in films, from Whiplash to Seymour: An Introduction, and it’s a big part of how the film envisions Brian Wilson, as a working musician pursuing new sounds and perfection.
Unfolding across two different decades — in the 1960s with Wilson in his twenties (Paul Dano) and in the 1980s with Wilson in his forties (John Cusack) — in parallel, Love & Mercy charts Wilson’s mental breakdown that began while he was developing his masterpiece Pet Sounds and how his mental health issues continued to plague him years later, making him the victim of opportunistic people with an eye on his estate. It’s hinted at that this is not unrelated to his traumatic childhood: he had an abusive father who went to special pains to single him out for torture.
When the film begins in the 1960s, Wilson has just taken a hiatus from touring, because of his mental instability and in order to focus on composing and preparing their new album. His brothers — the band — and his wife worry about his mental health, but he’s consumed with his music, intent on doing something new and innovative. Imagining the soundscape for a new piece while he lies on the hood of a car, the music becomes all encompassing, the only sound we can hear, filling the cinema. When Brian presents the score for “God Only Knows” to session musicians, they’re baffled by the fact that they’re playing in two different keys. At one point, we find Brian sitting on the grand piano in the studio, placing bobby pins on the strings to change their sound.
The session musicians are wowed by his audacity, while his brothers, his bandmates, are frustrated that his new music is not likely to lead to popular hits. They want to stick to what they know —songs about surfing and California with simply, catchy melodies — while Brian wants to explore complex chord changes and arrangements. Worse, they feel like pawns in “The Brian Wilson Project,” that the album is entirely his vision, as if he’s using their voices to make his music. That vision is something we, the audience, get to share, as Director Bill Pohlad has very carefully mixed the film’s sound to mimic Brian’s subjective experience.
Dano is terrific as the troubled, young Brian, with a creative passion that he’s trying to pursue while the rest of him is hanging on by a thread. There’s this innocent, child-like excitement that lights up his eyes when he’s in the studio, trying out his arrangements. He’s socially and physically awkward, standing stiffly with his arms at both sides, palms facing backward, but it takes a while for it to become clear that that’s not the only problem he’s grappling with.
Pohlad takes great pains to bring us inside Brian’s head. Shot by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, the film’s aesthetic often plays with reality as frequently as Brian’s own mind shifts in and out of it. In one scene at the recording studio, Brian’s father shows up unexpectedly to criticize him. He leaves the booth and heads into the studio, placing headphones on his ears that don’t quite block out the sound from next door: he can still hear the faint bass of the album his father insists on playing for them. The camera circles around him in closeup, the sound getting distorted, as Dano’s face betrays a man who is broken, confused, and tormented, and we feel we’ve descended into the personal hell Brian is stuck in. Dano even sings Brian’s parts in the recording studio with impressive accuracy.
Although Cusack looks nothing like Dano, he works as the older Brian Wilson as he takes on a similar physicality and similar tics. But casting him also tips the scale to ensure our sympathy for Brian: as with all of Cusack’s most famous characters, his Brian is charming and winsome, making it all the more painful to see how he’s suffering. He’s under the care of a psychiatrist, Eugene (Paul Giamatti, a bit of a caricatured villain), who overmedicates him, spies on him, cuts him off from his family, and controls all aspects of his life. Eugene acts under the guise of helping Brian, but really, it’s in the hopes of being able to collect a fortune in the process. When Brian begins a romance with Melinda, he finally has someone in his corner. It’s touching to see how vulnerable he is around her, and how much she cares for him and fights for him.
The film is an actor’s showcase, a stealth musical, and occasionally a clumsy way to get across information that might have worked better in an autobiography. But I’m not sure the film would hold much interest if Wilson weren’t already such an important cultural figure, for it never transcends his story to tell a deeper one about mental illness or the creative process. The film never even names what Brian’s actual condition is, only the incorrect diagnoses that he’s given. Sometimes, its depiction of Brian’s composition process is so on the nose, it’s painful. At one point, he’s playing some chords on the piano that he’s put together into a song, but he hasn’t quite figured out what it should be yet. Savvy audience members will recognize it as the foundation for “Good Vibrations,” Wilson’s greatest hit, but we’re subjected to dialogue in which he explains that he’s picking up good vibes from the dogs at his feet. When we cut to the next scene, it’s the polished song we know and love.