Unless you’re specifically a fan of the artist, it’s hard not to consider most biopics on musicians a little inconsequential. Rarely do they strive to stand out in their own right or give you anything you couldn’t have gotten from a documentary or just reading a Wikipedia bio.
Love & Mercy, on the other hand, avoids blending into the genre with ingeniously layered motifs, a small but stellar cast and some smart stylistic choices. The result isn’t just that Love & Mercy is a refreshingly accessible and enjoyable biography, but a compelling and memorable film regardless of your interest in the subject. At times the rose-tinted storytelling can hurt the film’s credibility, but it’s all in the name of a methodically constructed journey to a feel-good ending. This isn’t some shocking behind the scenes look, nor is it an indulgent vanity project. Rather, Love & Mercy is a charming and genuine letter of gratitude to Brian Wilson, and the woman who saved him.
Love & Mercy starts abruptly and introduces us first to Brian Wilson’s emerging psychosis before we get to know the musical genius behind The Beach Boys. While this initially throws you off-kilter and the film (perhaps fittingly) takes some time to find its rhythm, it’s not long before it settles into its parallel narrative, bouncing back and forth between Wilson (Paul Dano) at the height of his career in the 60s, and his broken and distraught older self in the 80s (John Cusack). The Wilsons of both timelines are introduced with a friendly optimism that slowly peels back to reveal his crippling isolation, deteriorating mental health and inability to stop others from taking control of his works and life. While both stories unfold in similar ways, Love & Mercy avoids repeating itself by shifting the shooting style and perspective in each era.
In the past we are very much a fly on Wilson’s wall, watching him working hard on the new album while the rest of the band are off touring. Director Bill Pohlad cleverly adds a documentary flavour to Wilson’s time in the studio, letting Dano improvise with actual studio musicians and sitting back to watch it unfold. Most of the music process is filmed with a handheld camera, delightfully and organically communicating his creative genius through snippets of b-roll first and exposition second. The later era is decidedly different, featuring a more typical shooting style andÂ instead putting us into the shoes of Brian’s future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). By switching up the protagonist to someone slowly learning about Brian’s situation, Pohlad posits this later phase as a question for the audience, with the earlier as the answer. Once the full picture of Wilson’s accomplishments and tragedies are explored, Love & Mercy becomes about taking back control of his life, with him ultimately failing in the 60s and Ledbetter picking up the torch to continue the fight decades later. Aside from just continuing the film’s momentum, this allows Pohlad to combine Wilson’s sweet highs and downtrodden lows into a rich and bittersweet harmony, instead of the two just playing over each other.
While the developing love story of Wilson and Ledbetter is warm and cosy in all the right ways, it’s the early years of discovery that are the most exciting to watch unfold. Wilson draws most of his music from the sounds and voices in his head (before these twist into something darker and are revealed as symptoms of his psychological problems), which Pohlad uses to subtly tease the music, letting Brian transform it into an abstract concept and eventually into one of The Beach Boys’ classic songs, all the while using it as a clever motif or statement on Wilson’s story as a whole. A perfect example is the rhythmic sounds and whining Wilson hears, which he confusingly explains as something like crying, but in a happy way. This quickly and quietly plants the seeds that will turn into the band singing “You Still Believe In Me”, and neatly puts into words the intangible beauty in Wilson’s later tragedy. Smart, effective and rewarding, regardless of your familiarity with the songs, these moments see Love & Mercy use Wilson’s life and music as a canvas instead of just a plot outline.
Love & Mercy‘s biggest problem, however, is how black and white it presents its characters. Those who Brian remembers fondly are almost angelic, while anyone that stood in his way remain firm antagonists and are never really given a sympathetic moment. Chief among them of course is Paul Giamatti’s Dr. Landy, who takes control of Brian’s life after he comes into his care, keeping him dangerously medicated and leeching off his fortune. Landy is absolute evil, more closely a personification of Brian’s growing anxieties and fears than a living, breathing person. Thankfully Giamatti’s villain is not only captivating, but feels legitimately unbeatable for much of the film, ensuring you’re too infuriated by the injustice to be overly concerned about the one-sided storytelling.
Elizabeth Banks is hit a little bit harder by the simplistic characters, and simply isn’t given enough material to shine. She’s expectedly endearing and is the driving force of the film’s romantic side, but given everything else that’s happening, her character is disappointingly bland. Cusack’s performance as the older Wilson also suffers from being a little too ‘generic Hollywood nice-guy’, which can sometimes feel at odds with the severity of mental issues. It’s not an easy task to juggle having a character that Ledbetter could conceivably fall in love with while also being emotionally numb and socially incapable, and while Cusack deserves kudos on doing fairly well with both sides of the character, he ultimately fails to reconcile them into one believable creation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dano is given the film’s best material to work with, which he happily accepts and consequently steals the show. Dano becomes Wilson absolutely; feeling incredibly natural as he joyfully improvises with musicians to show Wilson’s creative process. Watching his enthusiasm and gratitude when praised instantly has you rooting for him, breaking your heart later on as it’s all taken away from him piece by piece.
Biopics about geniuses crippled with emotional or psychological issues are a dime a dozen nowadays, but Pohlad does an inspired job of showing how essential Wilson’s problems were to his genius and creativity, as well as how they left him defenceless to the things that would inevitably ruin him. The individual components of Love & Mercy aren’t really anything worth writing home about, but it’s the way it all works together that manages to create something special. Pohlad carefully arranges all his instruments to show how tragic Wilson’s fate was, and how lucky he was to finally find someone to fight for him.
Love & Mercy is the perfect musical biopic, celebrating the genius of Brian Wilson and exploring his works to weave a heart-warming story about what we would be without somebody to love and care for us. God only knows.
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