Paul Dano and John Cusack star as Brian Wilson; each actor portraying the Beach Boys musician at a crucial time in his life. This is not a conventional biopic. Here memories and sounds and woven between events, creating a film which is more about getting inside Brian’s head, than following major life and career events. Love & Mercy is reviewed after the jump.
Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) refuses to tour. The opening credits to Love & Mercy shows us a whirlwind view of The Beach Boys happy-go-lucky pop success. Smiling faces, songs about summer love and a legion of fans who all love their dreamboat, surfer boy image. Brian has had enough of the show, he just wants to create. The band heads off on tour and Wilson starts working on what will become one of the most influential albums in pop, Pet Sounds. His experimental musical methods may cause the studio band to scratch their heads, and his band mates may take a heck of a lot of convincing, but Brian has a very particular sound he’s trying to achieve. It’s revolutionary.
Brian Wilson (John Cusack) is not well. He functions, but he’s heavily medicated and rarely left alone. He spent years in bed, battling the voices in his head. He’s “saved” by psychiatrist, Dr Landy (Paul Giamatti), who gets him out of bed and assumes his care. When Brian meets car saleswoman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), he is quite taken by her. She likes him a lot, but doesn’t warm to Dr Landy’s overwhelming presence in his life. As she begins to care more for Brian, she imagines a different future for him, one which he wants but doesn’t know how to get.
These two time-lines are woven together to give us a fascinating picture of a troubled musical genius. Its depiction of Brian’s creative process is especially insightful, with the scenes of Brian working with the studio band among the film’s highlights. Brian Wilson has even commented how factual the depiction of him is. After seeing this film it really does boggle the mind that Pet Sounds was actually ever made.
What’s particularly striking about Love & Mercy, and sets it apart from the standard music bio pic is the use of sound. While the music is (of course) fantastic, it’s the way sounds and the warping of both speech and music are used to immerse us in Brian’s headspace. Brian’s drug use and mental health issues have resulted in him having a somewhat tenuous grip on reality. He hears voices and certain sounds affect him more than others. The result is that Love & Mercy is often a confusing, sensory experience, and I mean this in a very good way. Rather than just showing us Brian’s struggles, the film invites us to experience a small aspect of it.
The fact that Brian is played by two actors is another plus and an example of how this isn’t your average biopic. Having two different actors playing Brian at very different times in his life makes sense and is a fair and more cohesive and enjoyable experience than a make-up job. No matter how good that make-up and or prosthetics may be, you are conscious of the fact that it isn’t real. In Love & Mercy I didn’t think for one second that these actors weren’t depicting the same person. Dano packed on the pounds for his role as the younger Brian Wilson and he delivers a career-best performance. Cusack plays troubled characters rather well and is a good choice for the older Brian.
Elizabeth Banks is getting buzz for her performance here and she should be. She plays a smart go-getter of a woman, who isn’t willing to be bullied into submission. I thought she was wonderful and gave the character an equal measure of pluckiness and heart. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Paul Giamatti, who Acts (with a capital ‘A’) like a TV movie villain. Sure his character isn’t a particularly nice person, but a little subtlety would have gone a long way.
Love & Mercy will have you tapping your feet and shaking your head. It’s both inspiring and thrilling – a head-trip through the mind of someone who sees the world in a wholly unique way.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Bill Pohlad
Screenplay: Oren Moverman & Michael A. Lerner
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
Runtime: 120 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: 6:15pm, Tues 9 June (Event Cinemas George St); 8:30pm, Thurs 11 June (Hayden Orpheum Cremorne). National release: June 25 2015.