Love & Mercy review: A warm, creative biopic of Brian Wilson
Cast in front of the camera8
Creativity behind it8
James R | On 15, Apr 2021
Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
What do dogs, a theremin and cellos all have in common? The answer is Brian Wilson, the remarkable music pioneer at the heart of The Beach Boys. From getting musicians to play in different keys to each other to embracing ambient studio chatter and including wrong notes, he was an unusual, eccentric and formidable talent – and it’s only fitting that film portraying his life should take a similarly creative and open approach.
Screenwriter Oren Moverman structures the biopic around two key passages in Wilson’s life: him as a 1963-era pop music powerhouse and, later, as a middle-aged 1980s recluse under heavy medication. Paul Dano and John Cusack step into Brian’s shoes for the respective chapters, and part of the film’s magic stems from the way both men manage to tap into the same man but draw out entirely different sides of him.
Dano has an ego and drive that’s all-consuming, and as convincing as the way he holds him arms when he walks. Learning to play the piano, he ricochets around the recording studio like a whirlwind of inspiration, with the soundtrack seamlessly moving from his own musical performances to recordings of the original songs. Watching him in full flow is a delight, even as he increasingly begins to struggle with the voices inside his head. Staying at home rather than tour with the band, it’s the start of a journey that will both propel him to new heights and start to isolate him off from the rest of the world.
Fast forward 20 years and Cusack brings a dry wit to a more vulnerable Wilson. He reaches out to car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) with a gentle charm, but he also shrinks under the influence of his therapist, Eugene (Paul Giamatti), who bullies him and controls his affairs with a legal guardianship that particularly resonates today. Both actors deserve awards recognition for their chameleonic screen turns.
The result is, in many ways, a conventional affair, jumping between past and present and choosing to focus as much on Wilson’s redemption and rescue at the hands of Melinda (an unrecognisale Banks) as his professional prowess. But director Bill Pohlad crafts something beautifully warm through these mosaic pieces, delving into mental illness and political tensions within the Beach Boys with a deceptively light touch.
He draws nuanced turns from all his cast members, and, throughout, maintains a feeling wonder and excitement that drives every aspect of Wilson’s life, and is at the core of the most incandescent and timeless Beach Boys classics. From Giamatti’s intense, intimidating supporting role to the vibrant period details, the whole thing rings with a heartfelt, free-wheeling authenticity – a note that strikes particularly true during those studio sessions, which Pohlad films on handheld Super 16. As the dogs bark, the musicians play in different keys and Wilson obsessively records percussive cellos over and over, you could swear we’re watching a documentary of the real thing – you’ll be feeling those Good Vibrations for hours after watching.