“I keep looking for a place to fit/Where I can speak my mind/I’ve been trying hard to find the people/That I won’t leave behind/They say I got brains/But they ain’t doing me no good/I wish they could,” Brian Wilson sings on The Beach Boys‘ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” It’s easy to see the autobiography in those words. The songwriter and vocalist’s career and life has been defined not just by a genius that created one of the greatest albums of all time, but also by his own mental instability. The stories around Wilson are as legendary as his songs, but how does one chronicle his life without salaciousness while also celebrating his musical accomplishments? Screenwriter Oren Moverman (“Rampart,” “The Messenger“) found the balance, and director Bill Pohlad puts it all together with nary a beat out of place in “Love & Mercy.”
A simple, effective structure is the key to the film’s success, jumping between timelines to show both the making of The Beach Boys’ greatest accomplishment, and the re-making of a man broken by his own brain, and manipulated and abused by those closest to him. Paul Dano plays the young Brian, with the opening credits cleverly dispensing with the band’s surf-pop rise to fame, while the film commences with Brian considering what to do next. Not a fan of touring, he talks the rest of the group into hiring a replacement on the road so he can get cracking on Pet Sounds, which is inspired by The Beatles‘ Rubber Soul. But Brian feels guilt about firing his abusive father, Murry Wilson, as the manager of the band, and yet still seeks his approval. Meanwhile, the early flickers of a mental issue begin to surface as well, but Brian distracts himself with the fountain of creativity pouring out of him, and he soon lands on brilliant idea of using the studio itself as a instrument for the record.
Jumping ahead a couple of decades, John Cusack (who hasn’t been this good in ages) takes over the role of Brian in the 1980s portions of the movie, where he’s lost, adrift and under the complete control of his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy. Paul Giamatti reaches into his bag of smarm and pulls out a doozy, with the actor capturing the New Age quackery, doublespeak and outright hostility Landy used to effectively take over Brian’s life, including his finances. But one thing Landy can’t control is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a former model turned Cadillac salesperson. A surprise encounter with Brian at the dealership where she works leads to a relationship that has lasted to this day. But Landy’s iron grip on every aspect of Brian’s life —from when he eats, to the kinds of “vitamins” he takes, and who he sees— will provide a formidable obstacles.
While the assumption might be that the dual timelines function as a shortcut to two of the more extraordinary events in Brian’s life, that would diminish the skill in which Moverman’s script (Michael Alan Lerner penned the first draft, which was subsequently rewritten) manages to get all the needed context into the movie. The 1960s portion isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of writing those songs (music-loving cinephiles will be excited by the terrific studio sequences), but also about Brian finally finding his own artistic voice. It’s also about Brian asserting himself as an individual outside the influence of his father, who essentially competed with his own sons for fame and record sales. And thus, the irony is rich when Brian finds himself decades later in an arguably worse position, where he’s trapped and tracked by a father figure in the equally controlling Landy, who knows just what buttons to push to keep Brian in line, doped up on pills and aquiescent to a scheme that the doctor hopes will make himself rich.
It could be seen as a potentially jarring approach, hurtling viewers between two different eras, but the thematic and narrative symmetry are palpably real thanks to Dano and Cusack. Though the pair don’t share any scenes together, both deliver turns that are of a piece. Dano does a stellar job of discovering the artist excited by new musical possibilities, fearful of failure and quietly haunted by the sense that there is something wrong inside of him, while Cusack portrays a Wilson who knows he’s sick, is cognizant that the care he’s receiving is questionable, but is terrified of the consequences if he tries to do something about it. It’s almost as if Brian Wilson was a child, a man, and then a child again in his life, before Melinda gets him back on his feet. And the Melinda character, played by Banks, is a nicely developed part.
Pohlad’s direction is unfussy and thankfully avoids the stylistic tics that can run rampant in this kind of material. A high profile producer who has worked with Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick and Ang Lee, Pohlad doesn’t overreach for his sophomore feature, which comes well over two decades since his first film. He lets the assembled talent do their jobs, which includes composer Atticus Ross, whose score features the pulsating, soundscape-y kind of stuff he usually does with Trent Reznor, as well as fragments from Beach Boys recordings.
“Love & Mercy” isn’t a standard celebration nor a traditional music biopic. Instead, it’s a survival story about a man who fought his own doubts, uncertainty from his own family, and those who used him, to come to a place where music and happiness could co-exist. The film has plenty of love and mercy for its subject, but also some edginess, in what is a fascinating look at one of popular music’s most important and influential songwriters. And yet, the movie could also be seen as how one album and one woman saved Brian Wilson’s life. Such is his genius that his worst times can somehow also be his best. [B+]