Heroes And Villains: Love And Mercy Reviewed

Robert Bright reviews Bill Pohlad's biopic of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, but is it giving him excitations or is it Sloop John Balls?

Despite what the promotional art might suggest, anyone coming to the music biopic Love And Mercy expecting sun-bleached, LSD-infused, Land of the Lotus Eaters nostalgia will walk away disappointed. Near the beginning we do get The Beach Boys preparing for a photo shoot – sand, surfboard and hotrod duly present – and throughout the film there are snatches of famous hits, but credit is due to director Bill Pohlad for resisting the urge to simply regurgitate a bunch of Sixties tropes, California tropes and dope tropes.

Writer Oren Moverman also takes some of the credit for this. He previously penned the Bob Dylan ‘biopic’, I’m Not There, which for all its faults did at least wrestle with the role that myth, or for that matter branding, plays in constructing the idea of the artist. Love And Mercy isn’t as experimental, but it still rejects the Bildungsroman approach of most musical biopics, choosing instead to focus on two specific periods in Brian Wilson’s turbulent life in order to throw light on the whole.

Parallel narratives see Paul Dano playing the Brian of the mid-Sixties, a moon-faced prodigy at the apex of his fame, now on the cusp of making Pet Sounds, while John Cusack becomes late-Eighties Brian, two decades of psychological turmoil written into the halting steps and haunted eyes. Both performances are excellent, capturing the man’s emotional fragility and creative bloody-mindedness, the continuity between them giving each strand of the story equal weight and making an irrelevance of the fact that Dano looks remarkably like the young Brian Wilson and Cusack nothing like the older one.

Other roles are less nuanced. In the Eighties scenes, Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy growls and stomps about the place like someone who could do with knocking back a handful of the anti-psychotics he prescribes so liberally to Wilson, while Elizabeth Banks has little room for manoeuvre in her role as Melinda Ledbetter, the good woman who saves Wilson from the bad man. In the Sixties narrative, that bad man is the father Murray Wilson, a boozy and bitter wannabe, while the other Beach Boys get pretty short shrift, Mike Love in particular cast as an opportunist simply looking to milk a good thing. No doubt there’s some truth in all of these characterizations, but in this context they exist simply to provide shadow, the better to see the light of Wilson’s genius. The film never slips into pure hagiography, but it is perhaps too respectful in never touching on Wilson’s collusion in his own deterioration, most of which occurred in the two-decade gap between the periods dramatized here.

Nevertheless, Love And Mercy skillfully conveys the things Wilson couldn’t control, like the onset of the auditory hallucinations that began while recording Pet Sounds and that plague him to this day. The opening sequence sets up the theme with the camera travelling the length of a human ear canal, fractured sounds echoing and multiplying, while later on the cacophonous sound of crockery at a dinner party sends Wilson into a tailspin. Creepiest is the scene where he hears voices through the headphones in the studio, only to remove them and for those voices to persist. Voices that, as the real Wilson has said in interviews, are "mostly derogatory".

Pohlad avoids turning Wilson’s predicament into madness-being-a-hairs-breadth-from-genius shtick. There are no brooding thousand-yard stares, no trite suggestions that, as a bona fide artist, his abysses need to be deeper than ours. This is to be commended given the frequent depiction of artists in biopics that even now echo their Romantic origins, all wild-eyed ego and Promethean zeal. It’s one of the persistent ironies that people who might produce complex, daring and visionary work tend to receive such pedestrian treatment on film. Much of the problem obviously stems from the creative act itself – it’s not exactly filmable. Or rather, it’s entirely filmable, but if it’s realism you’re after, what you’re likely to get is someone staring through a grit-stained windowpane for an hour and a half, the only action a fly beating itself against the glass, until eventually a chord gets strummed or a line gets written. Roll credits…

It’s admirable then that the best sequences of Love And Mercy focus on Wilson in the act of creating Pet Sounds with crack LA session musicians, ‘The Wrecking Crew’. Dano is inspired at getting across Wilson’s obsessive, eccentric process, sprawled in the innards of a grand piano like a car mechanic, plucking the strings with a hairpin, or egging on cellists to manically saw away at their instruments in order to get the distinctive ‘ka-ka-ka’ sound on Good Vibrations. It’s also here that Wilson’s troubled psyche is most poignantly on display, as he feels his way around the studio like a blind man, hands hovering on walls and instruments before declaring, “the vibrations aren’t right” for recording. There’s almost a film within a film here, the suggestion that these scenes in themselves could have formed a fulcrum around which the rest of the story might revolve.

As it is, for all its qualities, Love And Mercy remains underwhelming. Maybe it goes back to the basic problem of transferring one art form into another. Given the primary audience are likely to be fans of the band, this is music that has sound-tracked their lives, shaped it in subtle and profound ways. They’ll have their own store of images and emotions they associate with it. To witness a ‘factual’ account of the creator is a bit like whipping away the curtain and seeing just who the Great and Terrible Oz really is.

Maybe this is why the best musical biopics seem to be about fans of the music rather than the musicians. 24 Hour Party People and, appropriately enough, the under-appreciated Good Vibrations are a couple that come to mind. The main protagonists in these films are people like us, but unlike us they have a financial commitment to the music, and herein is the necessary jeopardy. They also act as narrators (Tony Wilson, Terri Hooley) guiding us through the vicissitudes of navigating the zeitgeist – a crucial link to documentaries, which tend to have a far more venerable reputation when it comes to music on screen.

Curiously then, perhaps the best cinema audience for Love And Mercy this summer are not the hardcore fans but people looking for some genuinely human drama in the face of the long and tedious roster of superhero blockbusters. The real Brian Wilson singing the title song at the closing credits of the film at least has some of the real magical powers capable of bringing bombastic caped crusaders back down to earth.

Love And Mercy is in cinemas today

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