FILM: “Love & Mercy”
Review by Richard Brody
Movies about musicians frequently turn into paint-by-numbers affairs, but that is not how director Bill Pohlad constructed “Love & Mercy.” From the opening shot of one of Brian Wilson’s ears, the use of two different actors to play Mr. Wilson, and the seamless juxtaposition of two different periods in Wilson’s life the director had one goal: for the audience to better understand the genius and demons that sang inside Brian’s head.
The film primarily focuses on two periods in Wilson’s life: the creation of Pet Sounds, arguably Wilson’s artistic peak, and a slice of his middle age, some 20 years later, when he is barely functional and under the court appointed “care” of therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Paul Dano – who looks, sounds and sings like Brian – plays the Pet Sounds era to perfection, while John Cusack, who doesn’t physically resemble or sound like Brian, captures mien – especially the emotional distress, fear and loneliness as well as the child-like quality – that are the essence of Brian during middle age.
The Beach Boys’ rise to fame in the early ’60s is dispensed with quickly in a series of brief grainy TV performances and a concert scene. Some might be disappointed by the seeming lack of focus on that part of Brian’s experience with the band, but we get to hear some of the songs and the harmonies that became their calling card.
The movie comes into focus early with two scenes. The first takes place in a Cadillac showroom where Brian (John Cusack) meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) , a saleswoman with whom he is immediately smitten. Landy’s entourage, who monitor Brian’s every move, is there and hasten Brian out of the showroom – but not before Brian gives Linda her own business card back on which he has written “scared, lonely, frightened.”
The next scene is Brian (Paul Dano) having a panic attack on a plane during a tour. Brian wants out of touring in order to spend his time in the studio writing and preparing the production for the band’s next album that would turn out to be Pet Sounds. Is the panic attack a portent of the more severe mental health issues to come? Is the attack born out of the frustration Brian might have about playing the hits which no longer excite him? Pohlad lets the viewer do whatever diagnosing there is to be done.
While some directors would show Brian having some ideas and then presto we have an album, Pohlad spends a significant amount of time allowing us to see and hear what goes on in the studio as Brian creates Pet Sounds. He artfully captures Brian’s creative energy and tireless effort to translate the sounds that he hears in his head into conversations with the Wrecking Crew, the ace studio musicians who will be responsible for the instrumental portion of the album. As supportive as the studio musicians are of Brian’s unorthodox ideas, the Beach Boys bandmembers, particularly Mike Love (Jake Abel), are less than enthused by the lyrics and music that sound very little like the songs that have made them wealthy and famous. Love’s anger is amplified by Brian’s abusive father (Bill Camp), who though fired as the band’s manager continues to berate and humiliate Brian’s efforts. You can feel Brian’s stress as he has to battle his father and his bandmates in order to fully realize his artistic vision.
The screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman originally titled their script “Heroes and Villains,” and the characters of Melissa Ledbetter and Dr. Eugene Landy fit that bill, respectively. Paul Giamatti’s sinister portrayal of Dr. Landy will make you want to jump out of your seat and do some very bad things to him. He has a smarmy smile that will make your skin crawl and an angry rage that lies just below the surface. He seems concerned with only one thing: controlling every aspect of Brian’s life under the guise of helping him. He does his best to end Brian’s relationship with Melissa Ledbetter, the one person who really wants to understand Brian. She provides a window into the Brian that Landy keeps locked up, and it is her relentless pursuit of freeing Brian to pursue his life that defines her character.
It’s hard not to think of deeper meaning for some of Brian’s lyrics when you watch this film, but one older song that is used in the movie, “In My Room,” gives the listener a profound sense of the disconnection and loneliness that Brian frequently felt before Melissa came into his life.
It’s a little early, but I’m betting that the film, the director, the writers and the four leading actors will receive their share of award nominations.