A charming little movie passed under most audience’s radar last June, which is a shame, since its unique take on biography, presenting itself in parallel narrative, really enhanced the meaning behind the film, and left an impression on anyone who actually did see the movie.
Love and Mercy is a biographical film from director Bill Pohlad (only his second film as director, though he served as executive producer for films such as Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave, and Food, Inc.) based on the life of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The film is told through two points of his life: the 1960s, with Paul Dano as Brian Wilson, when he was a part of the Beach Boys, as he took time from singing with the band to experiment with a new style of music unlike anything the Beach Boys or anyone had done prior, and the 1980s, with the ever-formidable John Cusack as and older Brian Wilson, who, after a struggle with drug addiction, finds himself under the care of twisted psychiatrist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti.
The format of the movie is such that it flips back and forth between the two time periods, and could not be pieced together with the clips that share the same time period; each 1960s scene compliments the next 1980s scene. Often the movie bridges scenes (particularly from the 1960s period) with recreated clips of Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys: the movie starts with a recreation of young Brian Wilson playing the piano whilst singing. You can tell that Pohlad and the team behind the movie took their research very seriously, as even the costumes that the band wears are reminiscent to what the actual band wore in the original clips of the Beach Boys.
In fact, the movie went to such lengths to make sure everything was as true to the actual story as possible and the effort shows. You are experiencing the abusive relationship between Landy and Wilson firsthand, you are experiencing the stress upon Wilson as not all the band accepts his new sound while recording legendary album ‘Pet Sounds’, and cannot help but root for Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks) as she attempts to break Wilson from Landy’s grip as she finds out the terrible truth about his therapy.
The whole movie is intimate, intense, and beautiful. The music of Brian Wilson and the soundtrack of Atticus Ross haunt the movie beautifully, and Dano’s breakdown as well as Cusack’s portrayal of Wilson’s mental instability truly evokes a raw emotion in the audience. The focus on the actual people around Wilson is also refreshing amongst all these newer biopics like The Theory of Everything where the supporting characters are much more romanticized (which is to say nothing against The Theory of Everything, as I love that movie to bits). Love and Mercy presents these people as people, leaving the audience to decide who is in the right, and who is in the wrong. It doesn’t outright say Landy is evil, even so far as to go the polar opposite direction, letting audiences ponder whether or not Landy is or was in the right. Wilson is recorded having saying that Landy did, in fact, save his life (again, which is to say nothing about Landy the person, as I do not condone what he did in the slightest) .
There is one scene in the movie which I feel sums up the experience perfectly: Brian Wilson has just finished recording for Pet Sounds of the day, and goes into the parking lot to relax. A member of the band comes out, and praises him for his work, calling him a genius (fun fact: Paul McCartney is recorded saying that Pet Sounds was an inspiration for a lot of the Beatles’ later work onward from St. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band). He leaves and Brian sinks into a schizophrenic-like nightmare of sound only to be awoken by Mike Love (Jake Abel) who raises his concerns about the new sound of the band. The imagery of Wilson losing himself to drug-induced voices on the hood of a car is so strong, you’d swear it was just added in for cinematic effect; indeed, you constantly have to remind yourself that it’s a biopic, due to how easily you can insert yourself into the story.
However, the movie is not perfect. The movie starts with a black screen and just music. It feels unorthodox and forced, and is not explained at any point; and that’s another thing too. The movie is so reliant on the ‘show not tell’ rule (predominantly in the 1960s clips) that some scenes just feel like they need explaining, and you question the meaning of things long into the next few scenes. Something I would expect in a more artsy film, not in a biopic, no matter how avant-garde it presents itself. These minor qualms aside, I would definitely recommend it, my favorite biopic of the year so far, by far. The limited showing is far done now, but the DVD is released early September.
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