Love & MercyReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/14/15 03:59:50
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys made some of their best songs (and one of pop music's greatest albums) by meticulously - indeed, maniacally - piecing small fractions together that aren't naturally found near each other, inventing what he couldn't pull from a group of talented musicians. Director Bill Pohlad aims to do the same with his two-track biography of Wilson, and he's not quite the sort of genius that can turn these conflicting things into the sort of finished product that feels like they way they must be. There are jarring bits. But that's a good way to approach a man with a mind that misbehaves, and the filmmakers get it to work.The first clear images come from the late 1980s or early 1990s, where California Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) has an unusual walk-in (John Cusack), simultaneously blunt and shy, very soft-spoken but also flirtatious and impulsive in a way that has to make a woman nervous. It's not until his guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) catches up that she finds out who this customer is. She's intrigued enough for a date, where she discovers that Landy's ministrations are excessive and controlling.
In the mid-1960s, a young Wilson (Paul Dano) is already starting to show signs of what Landy would later diagnose as paranoid schizophrenia, although that isn't necessarily linked to his no longer wanting to perform live as opposed to creating new sounds in the studio. So while the rest of the band is touring Japan, he's working with session musicians to create what will become "Pet Sounds" - though that album's critical success but pop-chart disappointment will deepen an already large rift between Brian, the rest of the band, and their former manager - and since most of the latter are family, speed the deterioration of his mental health.
There are two obvious storylines there, both of which wind up having a great deal of room for Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner to expand, contract, focus, connect, and contrast, but my favorite winds up emerging from the 1960s scenes, as Wilson becomes a joyously engaged mad scientist, daring his players to try new things, pouncing on "mistakes" and asking to repeat them. Fans of rock history - or just those who saw the long-delayed documentary released last year - will recognize the Wrecking Crew studio musicians even before they are name-checked, and that's just the first sign of the intriguing detail that is bursting out from all corners. This, we see, is where Brian is most functional and engaged, and though it clearly takes a special kind of mind to do this sort of work, Pohlad makes the process itself fascinating and frequently funny - it's actually an unusually clear look at the creative process that treats it as neither mysterious nor obvious. And for as great as the "Pet Sounds" sequence is, it may actually be the creation of "Good Vibrations" that astounds the most - watching Wilson find the song inside an initially-crude bassline is the musical equivalent of a sculptor knowing there's greatness inside a block of marble and chipping the excess away.
On its own, that would be worth the price of admission; that it serves as both a counterpoint to Wilson's ongoing deterioration in the past and the broken man of the "future" makes it even more heartbreaking and precious. Paul Dano is perhaps at his best when playing Wilson in the studio scenes, keen and insightful as opposed to being a little too wide-eyed and innocent for the world, but Dano's teetering and dedication to something the rest can't quite see makes a fine contrast to Jake Abel's Mike Love and Bill Camp's Murry Wilson, as Brian's bandmate and father both have far more pragmatic ideas about what the band should be. Much of the expected musician biopic material - the abusive childhood, the drugs, etc. - is handled offstage or in casual fashion, but Pohlad and company are often clever with presentation: Much of the time, the 1960s segments will play like an episode of The Monkees or a Beatles movie with the darker elements poking in at the corners, although never so much that it feels like a parody.
The circa 1990 segments jettison that sort of whimsy for a sun-blasted environment where the whole world seems to be well-lit but not illuminated, subject to a flatness that heightens the overmedicated haze that John Cusack's portrayal of the man finds himself subject to. Cusack's take on Wilson doesn't necessarily resemble Dano's all that much because of this, but one can see some of the same sort of hypersensitivity to the world around him and a readiness to emerge from the fuzzy retreat from the world, even if he still has little idea how to deal with it. This plays well against the two who will wind up battling for his soul, most obviously Paul Giamatti's fiercely possessive Landy, a monster who at least seems to have convinced himself he's not a con man. The real star of this part of the story winds up being Elizabeth Banks's Melinda; she gives this woman great kindness but also a very understandable wariness, though what's perhaps most impressive is how she quietly establishes Melinda as resilient and able to handle more than people might expect as a response to Landy taunting her with various disappointments.
That these two segments can seem to be in very different keys, much like Wilson's music, can be jarring, but it works as twin stories of collapse and reconstruction. The older Wilson is not and cannot be the same person as his younger self, and for the most part, Pohlad winds up keeping those stories separate, rather than the obvious tie in like having Landy show up at the end of the 1960s track. Indeed, the transition between the two segments winds up being surreal, and I wonder if the filmmakers had the hotel room from the end of 2001 in mind as they shot it. If so, nifty choice - an appropriately transformational way to tie the period where Wilson infamously barely got out of bed into the more active parts of the story.
The filmmakers also make good use of the soundtrack, not shying away from the Beach Boys, but seldom using them just because they're the obvious choice or to mark time. For much of the movie, the audience is more likely to hear those songs as works in progress or as a mashed-up muddle rather than on the soundtrack as-is, whether as true reflection or ironic counterpoint to the action - which, thankfully, means that when the time comes for one of these songs to represent the sheer joy it is meant to, there's nothing holding it back.Which is nice; I must admit, I wouldn't want this movie to ruin the Beach Boys for me. Instead, it gives me a much greater impression of Brian Wilson as a musician and a survivor, and though it can't tell every detail of every part of the story, it certainly gets enough on-screen that nothing feels left out and nothing hugely important gets short shrift. Even with just two slices of Wilson's life represented here, we get a full, often brilliantly-told story.
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