There is a moment in Love & Mercy where a young Brian Wilson, played by Paul Dano, is standing in a recording studio, and is confronted by his father, who tells him that he has peaked and that The Beach Boys are going to be forgotten in a few years. It is the typical moment in an entertainment biopic, which is so cliched and a staple of music biopics – how can someone say [insert name] will be forgotten? They are an icon!” – it is a cringe-worthy moment in all entertainment biopics, and is accompanied by many other cliched tropes. Luckily for us, this is the only conventional trope used in Love & Mercy, one of the most unconventionally great music biopics in years.
The Beach Boys were an unconventional band – a surf pop band that actually evolved to be iconic musicians and icons of popular music. At the forefront was Brian Wilson, who is truly a musical genius. If other musicians can be the subject of biopics, then Wilson certainly deserves it to. However, how do you make a biopic about Brian Wilson? One certainly can’t consider making a conventional biopic for such an unconventional musician, so there lay a monumental challenge for whoever attempted to make it…
…and that person crazy enough to try was rookie Bill Pohlad, a son of a billionaire who has served his two decades in Hollywood as a producer, dipping his toes into making a film himself. Of course, I am always very apprehensive when watching a prestige film made by an inexperienced filmmaker – I know all filmmakers have to start somewhere, by Pohlad’s only previous directing experience was in 1990, with a tiny and obscure little independent film, and nothing in the last twenty-five years is not the best sign. However, it seems he was absolutely passionate about this subject, and you can see that he was motivated to make the best film possible. I have no doubt that Love & Mercy was going to happen on Pohlad’s dollar at any cost, and he obviously used his connections to get the cast he did. He could’ve made a very trashy, confusing biopic that was true to his own visions and to satisfy his own desires, but instead he made a really great film that proves he actually isn’t just a rich producer, he is also a pretty great visionary. I am not at all implying he’s a brilliant director or that he is an absolute auteur, but he made an exquisite film.
Now here it where it gets interesting – the way this film was made was truly brilliant. Music biopics have existed for many years, and a lot of them were cradle to grave biopics, showing a coherent progression in the subject’s life. Many filmmakers have tried to do away with that, such as Don Cheadle in his upcoming biopic of Miles Davis, which takes only a few days in the life of the musical icon and shows them on screen. Pohlad does something equally unique and interesting – he takes two distinct periods of Wilson’s life and portrays them concurrently, appearing parrallel to each other. It reminds me of Iris, which starred Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch in two different stages of her life. Of course this method was to show the passages of time on Murdoch’s character, and there was no way Judi Dench would’ve been believable as a 20-year-old woman, or Kate Winslet as a 70-year-old. In Love & Mercy, it is done for a different reason, to show the completely different person Wilson was in the 1960s and 1980s. In the 1960s, he is portrayed as a shy, reclusive musical idealist, and in the 1980s, he is shown as a nervous, scared man who has become detached from reality. The decision to cast two actors who look almost entirely different from each other – Paul Dano and John Cusack – may seem like a bit of a lame attempt at getting big stars in your film, but it is actually a genius decision. Paul Dano might not look like John Cusack, but Brian Wilson in the 1960s did not look like Brian Wilson in the 1980s. There was a remarkable change in Wilson in that period, both in appearance and personality, so to portray him with two different actors is a very inspiring and interesting experiment that fortunately works, but I wouldn’t recommend too many other filmmakers being inspired by it, because while it works here, it will seem a little strange to do it in another film.
The cast is fantastic. Remember in my previous review, where I mentioned how Sicario was a film full of great performances, but everyone in it was just giving performances they could in their sleep? Well, this is the very antithesis of that theory, as everyone in this film does something we’ve never seen them do before. Paul Dano, who usually plays moody and detached intellectuals, plays a shy but energetic idealist and shows how he actually does have range. John Cusack lets go of his leading man, tough guy image to play a very depressed and beat-down older Brian. Elizabeth Banks, who usually plays loud-mouthed, hilarious characters is able to play a sensitive romantic lead, and of course Paul Giamatti is the star of this film. He plays Dr. Eugene Landy, the psychologist who turned Brian Wilson into an unstable, cold and unhappy man. His unconventional methods of therapy, such as making Wilson play in a sandbox, and dominating him like he was Brian’s father, are responsible for the downfall of Brian Wilson. Giamatti of course plays it brilliantly, and wearing a terrible toupee on his head, and having many memorable screaming moments directed towards Brian is wonderful. Of course, if there is a musical biopic, Paul Giamatti seems to need to be in it, but that’s another story all together.
Love & Mercy is a fantastic film. It tells the fascinating story of Brian Wilson, a man who we sometimes forget was responsible for the evolution of popular music. He may not have lived the rock star lifestyle others may have, but he certainly has their legacy, and it is evident in this film that Wilson is one of the foremost musical geniuses of all time. It is a great story made wonderfully by dedication from the director, writer (Oren Moverman was one of the writers, and he is responsible for some of the greatest screenplays of all time) and of course the cast. A wonderfully nostalgic film and a great biopic of an icon.