Editor’s Notes: Love & Mercy is currently open in limited theatrical release.
The music biopic sub-genre is one that has become incredibly hard to do in the last decade. Between general audiences becoming aware of standard biopic conventions and clichés to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story systematically deconstructing the entire sub-genre, specifically the heavy handedness that comes with trying to convey how important their subject matters were within the zeitgeist, filmmakers need to go the extra mile in making their films in order to stand out from the herd. We got a bit of this last year with Get On Up which while opening the film with the standard “performer heading out to stage” shot, immediately undercut itself with a dramatization of James Brown firing off a shotgun at the strip-mall he owned over someone using his private bathroom. Not exactly the most flattering way to begin your biopic. Love & Mercy, the film about the fall and rescue (redemption isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe it) of Brian Wilson, the genius behind The Beach Boys, doesn’t even bother with that shot. Instead, it chooses to open with the younger Brian (Paul Dano) late at night at the piano talking to the voices in his head about a song he has in mind followed by a shot of Brian during the “3 years in bed at 300 pounds” period. These two shots, as well as the opening credits that zoom past the early years of The Beach Boys, tells us right away that this is not going to be anything like the music bio-pics of old and will be just as much about the creative process and the struggles of mental illness as it is about one of the true geniuses of music in the last century.
This is not going to be anything like the music bio-pics of old and will be just as much about the creative process and the struggles of mental illness as it is about one of the true geniuses of music in the last century.
The film takes a two tiered approach to covering two specific times of Brian’s life. We follow him in the mid-60’s as he decides to not go on the road with his brothers and cousin as they tour in Tokyo and instead come up with the lyrics and arrangements of what would be the band’s greatest album “Pet Sounds” while dealing with his abusive father and former manager as well as the first inklings of manic-depression and schizoaffective disorder, which was at the time was misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. This would pull the band apart and cause his father to sell the publishing rights of the band’s songs for $750K, thinking that in 5 years, no one would remember them. The other half of the film is set in the late 80’s/early 90’s when Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman meets and falls in love with Brian (played in his older years by John Cusack) as he traded one sadistic control freak with another in the form of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, who’s doing double duty in music bio-pics this summer in this and Straight Outta Compton), the therapist who got Brian out of bed and lost the weight and in the process became Brian’s legal guardian, pumped him full of drugs, cut him off from his family and friends and had total control over his life. She was the one who finally did something about Brian and helped him to get back to being who he was.
What the film succeeds at the most is capturing the tension and anxiety of having a mental disorder and how it’s a constant presence that can consume you if not dealt with properly.
The best music bio-pics have to be about more than just the person they’re depicting and the music they create. Amadeus (which is really more historical fiction than actual biography) was a cautionary tale about a man’s relationship with God and how his resentfulness towards him lead to his own destruction. Walk the Line was a Beauty and the Beast-type story about the redemptive power of love. I’m Not There was a cubist look at how multi-faceted one man’s music was to a nation’s identity and history. In this case, Love & Mercy is about mental illness. While it captures the hard work and joy of the creative process (Brian incessantly playing a chord on the piano in his sandbox over and over again until it becomes the base line of “Good Vibrations” is one of the most joyous reveals in the film), what the film succeeds at the most is capturing the tension and anxiety of having a mental disorder and how it’s a constant presence that can consume you if not dealt with properly. From the long shots that continually build tension as various scenes progress to Atticus Ross’ unconventional score that transforms the various Beach Boys songs and character voices into disembodied sounds that at times play like wails of the damned to Cusack’s hollowed out and disassociated train of thought that skips around, Bill Pohland (the producer behind such modern classics as Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years A Slave and The Tree of Life making his first film since 1990) understands and depicts creatively and empathetically the constant presence that someone with mental instability has, the toll it can take on a person and the peace that comes when finally dealt with. While this is Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter’s story, this could easily be about anyone dealing with their own mental health. And if this film could lead to at least one person to seek help and therapy, then that’ll be worth more than all the inevitable critical praise and award nominations that are sure to come for the film.
As for the cast itself, while Paul Dano will probably get the lion’s share of praise amongst the cast, and deservedly so, as Brian in his prime as he slowly deteriorates, credit must also be given to John Cusack for perfectly capturing the broken in spirit and hollowed out Brian. It has been a long time since we’ve seen this Cusack and it is a welcome sight for sore eyes. Elizabeth Banks is great as a woman torn between the newfound love she has for the man who actually pays attention to her and treats her right and the encroaching paranoia brought on by the sadistic schlub that is Eugene Landy, which is perfectly captured by Paul Giamatti. My only complaint (which is really more personal distraction than anything else) was seeing Tyson Ritter (aka. Oliver Rome from season’s 5 and 6 of Parenthood) as the guy that gives Brian LSD in the requisite “musician tries drugs for the 1st time” scene that at this point is unavoidable in these types of films. Thankfully he doesn’t tell Brian, “You don’t want any part of this shit!!!”. While the film for the most part side-steps the cliché’s that were destroyed in Walk Hard (the scenes involving Brian and The Wrecking Crew sidestep the Walk Hard comparisons by showing the camaraderie Wilson had with the studio musicians), it’s moments like that as well as a scene in a pool that can’t help but recall the “army of didgeridoo’s” humor that makes one realize that it still is a music bio-pic.
But these are minor complaints as the film does become not only a moving depiction of one of the greatest music geniuses of the last century, but also a creative and powerful depiction of the struggles of mental illness and how one can overcome such personal demons. If this is playing anywhere near you, I highly urge you to check this out. It is so far one of the best films of not only the summer, but of 2015 so far.
Love & Mercy (with few exceptions) transcends the music bio-pic sub-genre and becomes one of the best depictions of mental illness and the peace that comes when dealt with as well as one of the greatest music geniuses of the last century.