Filmmakers take note: Love & Mercy is the way biopics should be made. This study of Brian Wilson, the often unheralded genius behind the unique sound of The Beach Boys, is an exuberant movie about the creative process. It’s not a happy movie—Brian Wilson lived a troubled life from the 1960s to the 1980s (the movie jumps back and forth between the two periods, sort of the beginning and the end of a particularly nightmarish chapter in Wilson’s life)—but it left me feeling giddy about how good movies can be when everything goes right. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to tell the sweeping history of a person’s life, but it can often turn a movie into a deadly experience. Director Bill Pohlad rightly zeroes in on a particular chapter and a particular struggle for Brian Wilson, and shapes those moments into a compelling story that feels wonderfully complete and satisfying.
Paul Dano and John Cusack share the role of Brian Wilson. Dano, with his subdued mad-genius quality, is perfect as the Brian Wilson of the 1960s, the guy who had a creative impulse he could not turn off, one which demanded that he stretch outside the admittedly lucrative formula that had served The Beach Boys so well in the first five years of their career. Cusack adds a kind of sharpened depth to the character of Brian Wilson, playing him in the late 80s, when he’s been under the dubious care of an abusive doctor who’s over-medicating him for his schizophrenia.
Love & Mercy achieves a thrilling magnificence during the scenes of Brian Wilson in the recording studio, trying to make Pet Sounds (the 1966 commercially unsuccessful, critical darling that many consider The Beach Boys’ masterpiece) while the rest of the Boys are on tour in Japan. Wilson brings in the Wrecking Crew (the uncredited studio musicians who did most of the instrumentation on The Beach Boys’ albums, as well as a multitude of other records made in the 50s and 60s), and they hammer out the unusual, quirky, rich, vibrant material that, even today, is astonishing.
When I went back and listened to Pet Sounds last fall (after suddenly deciding I wanted to get back into The Beach Boys), I was struck by how evocative this record is. It is the work of someone who’s had his heart broken and then put back together again. It is the work of someone oppressively weighed down by a creative impulse to transcend the glistening, blissfully happy pop ditties from the previous Beach Boys records. And the beautiful thing is, nothing about Pet Sounds or the film Love & Mercy diminishes those great, pure Beach Boys pop songs. If anything, these two pieces deepen that music. When we hear something like “California Girls” or “Surfin’ USA,” we’re hearing the giddy, innocent incantations of an endless summer. The music on Pet Sounds is what happens when that summer does finally end, and the reality of life smacks that previously cherry idealism in the face.
The casting in Love & Mercy is pretty brilliant, too. Not just the casting of Dano and Cusack, who are both terrific and moving in their own distinct ways, but also that of Elizabeth Banks and the guys playing Dennis and Carl Wilson and Mike Love and Al Jardine (Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Jake Abel, and Graham Rogers, respectively). Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, Brian's eventual second wife and the woman who helped rescue Wilson from the clutches of the nutty, controlling Dr. Landy, played to almost too-brilliant perfection by Paul Giamatti. He’s as vile and hate-worthy as the awful jazz conductor in Whiplash played by J.K. Simmons. That kind of voluminous asshole is almost too easy for guys like Giamatti. So you admire it, sure, but you also have to keep in mind the much more challenging subtlety of Banks’s performance, or Dano's or Cusack's. When Dr. Landy is screaming at Melinda through an office door, she just stands there with a smile of superiority, knowing she has gotten him to reveal his true, ugly colors. “Are you okay?” her boss asks, after Landy storms out of the office. “What are you going to do now?” She responds: “I’m going to sell some cars.” What a moment.
Pohlad also keeps a healthy perspective on The Beach Boys’ music and what it represents. There’s a knowing humor throughout the film that their music—especially the early stuff—represented a kind of square, all-American, blissfully-ignorant-of-world-events mindset. There's also the element of savvy, blatantly false marketing attached to the Beach Boys' image. Dennis was the only good-looking Beach Boy. (The rest of them were chubby or balding or just generally not the hunky blond sex idols they were purported to be.) Dennis was also the only one of them who actually surfed. Dennis Wilson was the Beach Boy who actually lived the life of a Beach Boy, only he eschewed the all-American squareness of their early songs for the LSD and sexual liberation that the later half of the 60s provided him so readily. In the movie, Mike Love—or maybe it was Carl—remarks, “Real surfers don’t even like our music!” Brian Wilson never actually surfed until 1976, and only then out of obligation for a piece of reporting being done on him. But even when some of The Beach Boys’ music is pure fluff, it’s incredibly well-done fluff, and those harmonies are heavenly. Love & Mercy gets this complexity: it honors the beauty of music that is essentially pop. It understands that pop music can be complex, and that this music and these lives mattered. This is a story worth telling.
Written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman. Based somewhat on the book Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, by Steven Gaines.