There’s always a mix of excitement and trepidation when a famous musician’s life is brought to the screen. Will it result in an uncompromising examination of the artist in question or an airless hagiography? There’s certainly much dramatic mileage to be crafted from the story of Brian Wilson, the creative driving force behind the legendary Beach Boys whose battle with depression and mental illness yielded some of the greatest songs in modern music. Thankfully, Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad (a renowned indie producer with only one previous directing credit to his name) isn’t interested in creating a mythologised portrayal of this subject, but rather an engrossing character study of a tortured and fragile genius.
Pohlad is able to achieve this by moving away from the traditional rise and (inevitable) fall, linear biopic narrative, and instead focus on two particularly tumultuous periods in his subject’s life, which he effortlessly slides between as the film progresses, without the use of any flashy or distracting transitions. Wasting no time in establishing the ascension of the Beach Boys via the opening credits montage which beautifully recreates various live performances and album publicity shoots, we’re then introduced to a burnt-out and almost catatonic Wilson in the 1980s (John Cusack). From there we follow his road to possible salvation in the form of a caring car dealer he meets (Elizabeth Banks) while he is chaperoned by his controlling entourage which includes the dubious psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). This is intercut with Wilson’s growth of an artist following the more commercially-minded Beach Boys fare.
Freeing himself from touring commitments, the gentle artist (played in this era by Paul Dano) goes to work with session musicians on crafting the now iconic Pet Sounds album. Witnessing Wilson’s genius via his unorthodox recording styles and seeing his demos bursting into vivid life is pure catnip for fans of the artist and his music. Those studio sessions crackle with authenticity and the incredible soundscape here is the work of David Fincher collaborator Atticus Ross. Ross melds together and reconfigures Wilson’s stunning array of songs, adding texture to the film and helping to cinematically depict the artist’s awe-inspiring, if sometimes torturous, process. At odds with his belligerent ex-manager father and forever being second-guessed by his lead singer cousin, Dano absolutely nails the younger character, whose gentle and shy exterior struggles to suppress the turmoil going on inside.
Cusack, while lacking much of a physical resemblance to Wilson, is also excellent, turning in his most assured performance in a long time. Love & Mercy’s only false note comes from chief antagonist Giamatti, whose turn is at odds with the largely subtle work achieved here. It’s a testament to the skills of the director and his scriptwriters that not only have they managed to fashion a reverential biopic, but in the process, they’ve created a story about the triumph of adversity through love (and mercy) which will also ring true and appeal to an audience not necessarily steeped in the world of the protagonist.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76