Silver Screen: Love and Mercy ****
The music biopic, like the sports movie, tends to rely on a pretty engrained formula: the one-time nobody with big dreams, the breakout hit, the dizzying ascendency to fame. Usually the only real question is, does the subject croak from a classic rock ‘n’ roll death— an overdose, a plane crash, an ill-fated bath, or swapping aspirations for aspirating— or do they soldier on for a brave if modest comeback?
In Love and Mercy, second-time director Bill Pohlad subverts the template and dodges (most of the) clichés to dramatize the fascinating and often harrowing life of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson. Pohlad’s risky strategy comes with its own set of pitfalls, but he executes the concept with grace and confidence.
The premise is this: Two different actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, play Wilson at critical junctures in his life. That the two actors look almost nothing alike, and in fact play Wilson somewhat differently, actually winds up working in Pohlad’s favor. Dano plays Wilson at the height of his powers as he innovates pop music with Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” en route to a mental breakdown that will find him bloated and bedridden for years. Cusack’s part of the story picks up nearly two decades later when an even more troubled Wilson has fallen under the influence of a poo-psych Svengali (Paul Giamatti). It’s as though the Wilson who has emerged from his years-long bout of obesity, drug abuse, and isolation is a different person entirely, which the dual casting helps accentuate.
In the 1960s portion of the film, Dano’s Wilson is struggling with intense anxiety. He convinces his brothers to find a replacement for him during a world tour so he can stay home and capture all the “new sounds” he’s hearing in his head in the studio. Love and Mercy is consistently compelling, but it’s never quite better than these moments, when the director, along with screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, brilliantly dramatizes the artistic process behind one of the all-time great records. Scenes of Wilson working with legendary studio-session players the Wrecking Crew, dazzling and sometimes confusing them with his bizarre approach to the new recording, are thrilling. It’s an insightful look into Wilson’s process, and of course each session ends with a sweet reward: hearing one of Wilson’s finalized tracks, like “God Only Knows.”
Those thrills are tempered with the knowledge that Wilson is headed for a big crash, which occurs off-camera. Two decades later, Wilson will be a twitching, paranoid shell of himself, overmedicated and manipulated by the unscrupulous Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti), who cuts Brian off from his family and tries to torment him into producing more great music— for which Landy will share songwriting credit, by the way.
Wilson is rescued by an unlikely source, former model turned Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). She strikes Brian’s fancy while he’s out shopping for new wheels and soon the two begin a relationship. But Melinda, humbled but wiser following a tough divorce, is wary of Landy, who has Wilson followed by an omnipresent “bodyguard” and demands that all access to the singer go through him.
Pohlad and his screenwriters deftly alternate between the two periods in Wilson’s life. The narrative trajectories are mirrored so that his earlier descent into madness is contrasted with his eventual liberation. Pohlad has some trouble near the end as the timelines converge; a gimmicky sequence in which Wilson sees himself at all different ages just plain doesn’t work, but it doesn’t significantly hinder the movie, which by that point is already too compelling to derail.
The performances are terrific. Dano, who has made a career playing mostly loathsome characters— he somehow managed to be the most awful white guy in Twelve Years a Slave—is tremendously sympathetic as the troubled but inspired Wilson. He looks absolutely possessed in the music studio as he finds new ways to convey the sounds that boom uncontrollably inside his head. Dano makes that prospect seem both terrifying and thrilling.
Like Dano, Giamatti made his name playing unrepentant assholes, starting with his breakout performance as Pig Vomit in the (still underrated) Howard Stern biopic Private Parts, followed shortly thereafter by the title role in Big Fat Liar. Giamatti has since gone on to play thorny but lovable characters in Sideways, American Splendor, and Win Win, but it’s a treat to see him unleash his red-faced id. Nobody does detestable quite like Giamatti, yet still he’s almost outdone by the great character actor Bill Camp playing Murray Wilson, the Beach Boys’ infamous taskmaster/father/manager.
But the real scene stealer of the movie is Banks, whose flinty, practical Melinda emerges as the movie’s hero. Banks has the rare ability to remain beautiful while suppressing her own glamor. Like Charlize Theron, she can play blue-collar without coming off like a slumming starlet. She employs that to great effect here. We learn only the barest details about the previous life of the future Mrs. Wilson, but in a movie loaded with famous musicians, Banks makes hers the character we wish we could spend more time with.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.