Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad
Release Year:
Oren Moverman (written by) and Michael A. Lerner ... (written by) (as Michael Alan Lerner) Brian Wilson (based on the life of)
John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
Screening Date:
  • 8 May 2018
  • Categories:
    Biography, Drama, Music

    Biopic of Brian Wilson as young (Paul Dano) and older (John Cusack). In the 1960's, he struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpieces whilst in the 1980's, he is a broken, confused man. Excellent unvarnished look at him and the music of the Beach Boys.

    Film Notes

    The first thing you see in “Love & Mercy” is an extreme close-up of Brian Wilson’s ear. It’s a startling image, and it holds out a twofold promise: that the film will take viewers inside its protagonist’s head and that it will pay particular attention to the role that sound played in his life. For the most part, this movie, a smart, compassionate, refreshingly unconventional biopic directed by Bill Pohlad, makes good on both promises, exploring the mental world and the artistic method of a great artist. It’s a loving tribute to the Beach Boys and the man responsible for their distinctive sound, but it goes to deeper and stranger places than most movies of its kind.

    On screen, the lives of musicians tend to follow a tried-and-true outline: A rise to fame is followed by a personal and professional crisis, often involving drugs, which is followed by a redemptive third act. What is often missing from the formula is any real insight into the reason we might be interested in the first place, which is the music. We might see our idol, more or less persuasively impersonated by a hard-working actor, strumming a guitar or noodling at a piano, but the complicated labor of creativity is notoriously hard to show on screen. Mr. Pohlad, an accomplished producer who had the cooperation of Mr. Wilson and his wife, Melinda, doesn’t just overcome this challenge; he makes witnessing the creation of a record as exciting as hearing a classic song for the first time.

    One of the best things about “Love & Mercy,” which was written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, is how long it lingers in the recording studio, observing as Brian, played in his 20s by Paul Dano, is putting together “Pet Sounds,” by consensus one of the great albums of its era. The attention to detail in these scenes provides a feast for geeks of all kinds, as the camera lovingly ogles microphones, amplifiers and consoles that were state of the art in the mid-1960s. Watching Brian, with his boyish face and eager puppy-dog manner, adjusting the knobs and directing the session players, is like watching a kid in a toy store. He is freer and more confident than ever before, layering and sculpting improbable instruments and bewitching harmonies into songs that are at once exquisitely simple and astonishingly sophisticated.

    The making of “Pet Sounds” is the centerpiece of “Love & Mercy.” It also represents a plateau of calm and control in the midst of a life full of chaos and pain. Instead of telling the story in full, the film shifts back and forth — fluidly and seamlessly — from the ’60s to the ’80s, when Brian, now played by John Cusack, first meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), in a Cadillac showroom in Los Angeles. Their courtship is complicated by the presence of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychologist who serves as Brian’s guru, dietitian and legal guardian. Working together — but also in isolation from each other, like musicians in separate recording booths — Mr. Cusack and Mr. Dano create a remarkable composite performance, a set of before-and-after pictures that is also a perfectly unified, hauntingly complex portrait. Mr. Dano, gentle and inscrutable as a panda bear, conveys the pathos of a young man’s unraveling.

    The Beach Boys were a family business, including Brian’s brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel). Their rise, chronicled in a lively montage of early hits, was overseen by Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), an abusive patriarch who hung around to undermine and humiliate his sons, Brian in particular, even after being fired as the group’s manager. The movie is careful not to push too far into Freudian psychodrama. Brian’s mental collapse is not directly attributed to his abusive father or to the pressures of fame.

    At a certain point, the sounds in his head take on a sinister cast, and his odd behavior and paranoid ramblings frighten his bandmates and his first wife, Marilyn (Erin Darke). LSD doesn’t help. By the time he meets Melinda, though, his breakdown is in the past. He strikes her as a sweet, soft-spoken eccentric, a pampered rich guy who is also kind and vulnerable. He shocks her sometimes by referring almost casually to the trauma and abuse in his past and gradually reveals the terror that governs his present-day life. If the ’60s half of “Love & Mercy” is, in part, a trippy excursion into a golden piece of the California past, the ’80s section is a spooky Los Angeles noir.

    Told almost entirely from Melinda’s perspective, it follows her discovery of the hidden, sinister dimensions of Dr. Landy’s apparent benevolence. A jolly, friendly fellow on the surface, Landy is both a one-of-a-kind creep (Mr. Giamatti’s smile will give you nightmares, as will his hair) and a recognizable type of villain. Melinda, whose sunny disposition masks a steely, icy resolve, makes a very satisfying foil, and Ms. Banks’s astute performance, in a series of eye-catching period-appropriate outfits, is what binds the film together. Melinda is the only person who can love and appreciate Brian for who he is, and as such she is the stand-in for the rest of us, who admire what he accomplished. This film deepens that appreciation and illuminates its sources.

    Mr. Pohlad’s deft narrative sense and careful visual style are complemented by the work of Atticus Ross, whose sonic collages —“score” doesn’t quite do justice to his achievement — take us deeper inside a musical mind than we might have thought possible. “Love & Mercy” doesn’t claim to solve the mystery of Brian Wilson, but it succeeds beyond all expectation in making you hear where he was coming from.

    A. O. SCOTT The New York Times, JUNE 4, 2015

    This bifurcated tale of distinct periods from the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson plays like two different movies – jarring melodies intertwined in harmonious discord. Watching one, I found myself marvelling at Paul Dano’s uncanny portrayal of Wilson in the 60s, struggling to detect the moment when the actor’s voice segues into that of the real-life musician, dazzled by the construction of stunningly authentic-looking faux archive footage. In the other, I wondered whether it mattered that John Cusack’s 80s incarnation bore so little physical resemblance to either his subject or his on-screen counterpart, and found myself questioning the blend of fact and fiction in this latter-day tale of love’s triumph over madness and corruption.

    These two strands do not intertwine with ease, but like the counterintuitive chords and juxtaposed beats of Wilson’s peerless songbook, they come together in weirdly beautiful song – a restless sea of storytelling styles upon which the narrative’s plaintive melody skitters and surfs. The subject of Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life and creative genius has been approached before on screen – directly and tangentially. Alongside such naff TV dramatisations as 1990’s Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys, we’ve had Don Was’s insightful 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (which proved inspirational for Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad), and Allison Anders’s still underrated Grace of My Heart (1996) in which Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips draws heavily on Wilson’s legacy.

    There’s a hint of Anders’s dextrous invention in Pohlad’s film – his first directorial outing since 1990’s Old Explorers – which opens with Wilson wondering about the source of his inspiration, and worrying: “What if I lose it and never get it back?” From here, we leap back and forth between the wilderness years of the 80s and the epochal days of the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, watching in wonder as Wilson hears a new world and becomes increasingly detached from the old (what a fascinating double bill this would make with Nick Moran’s Telstar: The Joe Meek Story).

    While Michael Alan Lerner’s original script has been thoroughly reconfigured by I’m Not There screenwriter Oren Moverman, Pohlad steps back from the stylistic adventures in which Todd Haynes cast Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin and others as fractured aspects of Bob Dylan’s personality. What he retains is an admirable non-linearity that allows Love & Mercy to make connections between disparate periods of Wilson’s life – to cut from Cusack’s Brian (a finger-twitching symphony of faraway stares and facial itches) writing the words “lonely, scared, frightened” in the 80s, to a panic attack 20 years earlier; or to juxtapose the bullying of Wilson by his father, who dismisses God Only Knows as “a suicide note” (rather than seeing it as a love song) with the tyranny of Dr Eugene Landy, who insists “I have it under control – I am the control!”

    As the Svengali-like therapist-turned-captor Landy, Paul Giamatti is eye-rollingly wicked, his character as roundly demonised as Elizabeth Banks’s sympathetic Melinda Ledbetter is sanctified (Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks has called the film “Mrs Wilson’s biopic”). The period textures are more complex, Pohlad and cinematographer Robert D Yeoman rivalling the tactile detail of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice with their use of 16mm and 35mm stock. Where the film really flies is in the restaging of the writing and recording sessions, the use of real musicians paying dividends in the vérité evocation of Wilson’s creative process.

    While several riffs are familiar – the piano in the sandbox, the firehats in the studio – there’s a startling freshness to a circling sequence that brilliantly captures the birth of Good Vibrations, Wilson’s “pocket symphony to God”. Plaudits, too, to composer Atticus Ross, whose score draws on elements from Wilson’s own recorded archive to create an underwater soundscape of warring psychodramatic themes. Pohlad may offer us a Blue Velvet-style close-up of Wilson’s damaged ear (a result of his father’s beating), but the composer and sound designers take us inside his head, immersing us in a world of musical invention, by turns seductive, enchanting, and terrifying.

    While Lerner (like Beach Boys biographer Steven Gaines) took his original title from the 1966/7 song Heroes and Villains, it’s significant that Pohlad’s film is named after the opening track of Wilson’s 1988 solo album, a sweet live rendition of which accompanies the end credits.

    With Asif Kapadia’s Amy breaking hearts and records in cinemas, Love & Mercy offers a healing vision of a troubled musician whose descent into the rabbit hole of drugs and bad company gives way to positive interventions and Hollywood resolutions. That so much of it rings true is a credit to the film-makers; that Wilson lived some (if not all) of it is a reminder of his matchless alchemical magic.

    Mark Kermode, The Guardian, July 12, 2015


    What you thought about Love and Mercy

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    28 (49%) 22 (39%) 3 (5%) 4 (7%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 57
    Film Score (0-5): 4.30

    Collated Response Comments

    118 members attended the screening of Love and Mercy with 92 turning up a little earlier for the AGM. 57 provided a response giving a hit rate of 48%.

    One member wrote "Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant - acting, screenplay and above all the music. Best film of the season - a great one to end on!" echoed by “a sad but stunning end to the season. When will we ever learn that creativity doesn’t fit in a box”. Another told us that they thought it was "something of a curate’s egg…On the one hand Paul Dano is extraordinary as Wilson; almost more like Brian than Brian, conveying his frailty and genius beautifully. John Cusack however is altogether and inescapably John Cusack. Great actor though he is, how did he get cast in this? Even doing befuddled he still looks pin sharp and you can almost feel him dialling down his febrile intelligence. Paul Giamatti is superb as ever as the loathsome and oleaginous Landy to the point of bordering on self-parody. The sixties are evoked masterfully, especially (speaking as a graphic designer) in the elegant typography of the credits. The finest scenes are in the studio with Wilson forcing his vision through with experienced session men (and whom I assume to be Carol Kaye - legendary bassist) where hearing songs gradually becoming recognisable in the cacophony impresses the viewer once again with his mind boggling talent".

    “I guess this wasn't meant to be a feel-good film - no happy completion - but it was also upsetting, because we were asked to accept watching the mental death-throes of a real (and still living) person, as entertainment.  Is that ethically right? It was, of course, too long and self-indulgent, as pop docs often are, but fascinating nonetheless, and for those, like me, whose teens coincided with the early 60's, a happy transport back to a carefree time of life. And while John Cusack was dreadfully miscast, Paul Dano was brilliant, down to his sometimes singing, sometimes lip-syncing the vocals. I would watch it again, but only mark it good”. Others told us that they "…enjoyed the film very much; it was quite an eye opener into the life of Brian Wilson. Some gifted people don’t get a happy ending unfortunately, but he seemed to do so in the end".  "A bit long. So sad and a happy ending was a welcome surprise. Women showed real grit - men?!!! Words cannot express what I thought of the father and the psychologist". “Feel nauseous – does that make it a good film?” “Shocking story of vulnerability, bullying and exploitation. Had me thanking my lucky stars that I’m surrounded by love and care during my periods of mental illness. It could happen to any of us…” all the other observations are on the website.

    “As good the second time around, if mote painful. The scenes around the making of Pet Sounds were excellent. Particular credit to Elisabeth Banks – the right brassy veneer at the start, so she grew as well”. “I really enjoyed this one. A great example of how talented people can be used and misused. Thought his voice still sounded great!” “Very touching”. “Excellent casting and very moving”. “Very tense but great”.

    “A very moving film – all the more so for being a biopic”. “A terribly sad story of manipulation of a musical genius but a great film”. “”Creatively using the medium of film to explore the struggles of creativity – and an extraordinary story”. “Superb insight into a personal story”. “Paul Dano is a genius”. “Excellent casting”. “Very powerful, brilliantly acted and mesmerising – but in a dark and horrifying way. The cutting and overlapping worked well”. “Loved its genius/madness. Loved Melinda. What a wonderful ending”.

    “Paul Dano is simply outstanding. I shall scuttle to Google to find out more- dark indeed – but what a talent Brian Wilson is”. “One that was the best of the season. I really enjoyed the film and I could hear what was being said”. “I did not know Brian Wilsons story – it is amazing. Despite the cruelty and lack of care, he has come through with the help of an amazingly strong woman (now wife)”. “My third viewing of this brilliantly acted moving film”. “One of the best this season”. “Both actors excellent. Quite frightening the dangers of drugs administered incorrectly”. “Would have been better with closed captions”. “Great note to end on – fab”. “A fascinating insight into the life of a troubled musical genius. I loved the scenes of the recording of Pet Sounds”. “I think I’m still a Beach Boys fan!? Very powerful story, rather too long and not well told. Lacking some reality”.

    “Very interesting. A sobering film. Fascinating watching how compositions were made. Also incredibly sad”. “A little disjointed – but very informative. I had not realised the issues. Loved the young Brian”. “Portrayal of young Brian Wilson was brilliant. Dialogue not always clear”. “Extraordinary moving and very painful but an effective cinematic technique to express his story. I have seen him perform, shortly after he returned to playing live and he was very zombie like”. “Surprising and very thought provoking”. “Films in American dialect should have subtitles!” “Quite a good story – could have been better told. Disappointing and unintelligible dialogue mostly and bad hand held cameras”. “Tedious – if I’d been at home I would have done the washing up”. “Repetitive, too long and slow”.

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