There are three Brian Wilsons in Bill Pohland’s sunlit biopic Love & Mercy. The young, ambitious and scattalogically creative Brian Wilson of the 60’s as portrayed by Paul Dano; the weary, troubled, illegitimately medicated Brian Wilson of the 1980’s as portrayed by John Cusack; and the man himself, paper-clipped in concert to the end credits, performing the film’s titular song. All three men feel sinuously connected, yet the bonds between them are not rigid. The film drifts in loose portrait of a man, searching for the necessary means to put him back together. It’s a film made out of great affection, occasionally hampered by its dislocated reconstructions of one visionary creative mind.
But isn’t that so often the case with the biopic? Usually made out of reverence for a life, filmmakers repeatedly find it tricky to sum up one person’s entire persona and achievements in the framework of 120 minutes. Life isn’t the same shape as a movie, and so often a biopic resembles mere cliff-notes, or goes on too long, drifting forlornly into less prosperous times. Rarely is there an upswing at the coda.
To Pohland’s enormous credit here, he and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner have at least attempted something slightly different to get them out of the genre’s troublesome straight-jacket. As previously intimated, Love & Mercy concentrates on two specific times in Wilson’s life; his maverick days creating The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds and his later spell under the watchful eye of Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and sleepwalking through days, months, even years. Love & Mercy chops and changes from one timeline to the other, allowing those not versed in Wilson’s story to engage in a game of cause and effect. How, in short, did one man become the other?
Dano presents the younger Wilson as an immensely likeable boy-genius, almost overwhelmed by the flow of creative juices within himself, eager to listen to the voices inside his head that help him express the music that was to become so timeless. With the rest of The Beach Boys away in Japan, Wilson tends to the studio work for their next album, spurred on by the creative leaps made by their major competitors The Beatles into composing, he hopes, the greatest pop album ever made. This, then, is interspersed with scenes of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) coming to know the much-diminished Wilson some years later. In both timelines dominant authority figures serve as demons caging Wilson’s birdlike spirit. In the 60’s it’s the oppressive presence of Wilson’s father Murry (Bill Camp) withholding his approval from Brian, while in the 80’s it is Dr Landy’s perverse and complex hold over him that applies the dramatic pressure.
Yet with a wisely humanistic sensibility, Pohland is able to concede that Wilson was not solely a victim of outside pressures, at least not to begin with. In the 60’s scenes Pohland and Dano paint him as a dreamer readily getting lost in his own world, vying with his band members as they struggle to keep up. There’s a degree of lionising to this, as it also portrays Wilson as a man impatiently better than his peers, while, in later years, he’s an almost Christ-like victim of the world around him, unaccountable for his actions as accountability has been taken away from him; an enfeebled vessel of foggy suffering.
Fortunately such occasional lopsidedness is tempered by the considerable talents involved in this picture. Dano in particular shines as the young Wilson, doing his most substantial work this side of There Will Be Blood that I’ve been privy to. Camp is subtly monstrous as his father in their scenes together, avoiding larger, more pantomime responses. Less controlled is Giamatti, who readily chews scenery in the more modern scenes as Dr Landy; the script affording him little if any alternative. Giamatti isn’t bad – when is he ever? – but there are greater complexities given to his compatriots Cusack and Banks. Banks in particular seems surefooted as Melinda Ledbetter, while Cusack continues to prove himself as capable an actor as he ever has.
Yet there’s a niggling mishmash to how the two timelines connect and feel when they’re mingled like this, and it stops Love & Mercy from bounding up the steps from good to great. Part of this, perhaps, is the effect of having such familiar actors in these roles. It takes quite a while to course-correct the brain from seeing John Cusack The Actor as opposed to Brian Wilson The Subject. For Dano, somehow, it seems less of a struggle. Yet flipping back and forth between them acts as a sort of pointed reminder. This, coupled with the relative aimlessness of the first half, makes Love & Mercy interesting as opposed to immersive. At least at first.
But enough with the negatives. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And once Pohland has a rhythm going the film surges forward quite amiably, even if it comes to feel a shade too long by the end. There are some neat sustained camera shots here as well, a couple of which roam around the actors in circles; the most impressive of which captures Dano as Wilson, tentatively building the framework of “God Only Knows”. It is only at the end of the shot that we are introduced to his father, sitting on the couch, ready to temper that sense of auteurism.
Nevertheless, the triumph of Wilson’s melodic genius is the chief celebration here and if nothing else Love & Mercy will make you want to sit down with the likes of Pet Sounds or SMiLE and really listen for the magic all over again.