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Crit : Hollywood



Love and Mercy  (2015)

The Brian Wilson Biopic, directed by Bill Pohlad (written by Mike Lerner and Oren Moverman) hits all the right musical notes


Love and Mercy  (2015)

Reviewed by Kevin Salveson



Due to the rich family drama behind The Beach Boys' catchy melodies it can sometimes seem like a kind of modern day music industry Game of Thrones. Fans love to imagine the intrigue which must have gone on behind closed doors as each competing camp publically struggled over the last fifty years or so to harness the greatness of the sound and brand in a way which matched their vision of commercial or artistic success. It is as if theydid  take that tour of Amusement Parks USA after all and wound up riding just about every roller coaster that this land could offer them. From Brian Wilson to Mike Love to Capitol Records to Mo Austin to Marilyn Wilson to Nick Grillo to Jack Reiley to Eugene Landy to, heck, namecheck the Marharisi and Manson... there is no end to the number of "Heroes and Villians" in the Beach Boys' extended cast of characters (the original working title for this film).


Sounds perfect for a movie, right? All about the marvellous harmonizations of one of the world's most popular singing combos versus all of the disharmonization which informed it. I mean, who doesn't listen to the music and daydream about being a fly in the studio or doing blow with Dennis and Brian? But that film could never get made because each camp naturally wants to control the narrative, right?  Look how hard it was for The Drummer (a Dennis Wilson biopic slated to shoot in 2012), for example, which never got made.


Because of that, there are basically only two kinds of Beach Boys biopics in existence right now.  One kind is the unauthorized made for-TV-movie type of junk drama like Summer Dreams or An American Family which are exploitative and inaccurate soap operas. The other type is the serious documentary which seeks to cast the drama as secondary to the music (such as Hawthorne, CA or Doin' It Again).


What the world needed and didn't have before now was a film which matched the artistry of the music, one which had legal permission take license with the story in order to tell it economically and dramatically. It took time, but here we are. This project was first attempted back in 1988 after Wilson's Imagination album comeback signalled his steady and strengthening climb back to superstardom and productivity. Still, there are a lot of people who may just think of the Beach Boys as primarily lightweight pop music rather than something more, and there are some camps who may be happy with that.


So, how to dramatize the greatness of the legacy honestly without touching on some very tender topics or trampling on some toes? Amidst all of those power struggles, who could possibly have the juice to get the greenlight on such a film?  Enter one of the best producers of his generation,  Bill Pohlad (Tree of Life, 12 Years A Slave, Into The Wild, Brokeback Mountain). Somehow he and partner John Wells managed to get eveyone to give him the OK, perhaps because it was clear he had an empathetic vision for the film.  


Not only that, like a fan's dream come true, he even got to play with the actual reel to reel tapes of Pet Sounds in the studio so that he could recreate the recording of certain sections seperate from the other tracks! Along with music supervisor Atticus Ross (The Social Network), Pohlad was obviously a fan who had done his homework and was out to make a film which was not ordinary. So he hired Oren Moverman (I'm Not There, a smart and compact Dylan pic, and The Messenger) and Mike Lerner to write a wonderfully imagined script and insisted on maintaining high quality standards throughout.


Now, after financing it himself out of pocket, Pohlad has successfully done the impossible and given us the Brian Wilson biopic the world deserves. Love and Mercy is a film nearly as ambitious and beautiful as the music. Pohlad, as the director of only his second feature, does an assured and ambitious job of dramatic condensation while keeping his ear to the studio door and our minds on the greatness of the music and Brian's genius.


A few small hiccups aside, the film captures just about everything a Beach Boys fan would want to see while at the same time keeping the story accessible to those who may not know any of the background. No "spoiler alert" warning is needed for a review of this movie because most people already know something of the story. Still, Pohlad gets all the details right, sometimes down to the smallest item. A little iron owl sits on Brian's piano in some scenes, for example, just as it did for the1966 filming of Brian performing Surf's Up solo at the piano for a Leonard Bernstein TV special. All of it adds up to a film that is believeable for both fans and newbies alike. From the moment we meet Brian looking for an escape hatch from his trials in the 70's via locking himself inside a car at the Cadillac shop with a salesgirl (who would eventually become Melinda Wilson, now his wife of three decades), to when he is shown working feverishly on Pet Sounds, Pohlad and Dano do justice to Brian's gentle child-like spirit and creativity in a way which is mostly assured and accurate.


Love and Mercy is also a film as much about recovery from mental illness as music. Wilson's personal struggle to manage a life filled with battering, controlling father figures and the demands of the music industry is at the heart of the film's drama. Sometimes Love and Mercy depicts Wilson's battle as a kind of man vs himself conflict. That is, Brian via Dano is seen suffering for his art both internally (audio hallucinations, expressing frustration or sensitivity over his work) and at the hands of others by choice (especially Mike Love and Dr. Landy, the villians).


Dano does a good job of keeping us onboard Brian's ambition. When Brian is poolside with the brothers and observes that he thinks he's losing it, the tone is conversational and believeable. Other times, perhaps due to a biography's need to condense a lot of information in a few lines, he speaks in near Zen koans. After his LSD trip, for example (not necessarily historically accurate; for the record, he wrote California Girls after his first trip, etc, though this may be his second) he arrives home to Marilyn Wilson to confess how beautiful it was. "I saw God" he says, that old hippie chestnut, then seconds later he is bawling about seeing the future and apologizing in advance for how bad he will treat his children one day. Still, Dano's passion rings true in how often he must let a little madness creep in, and a general audience may even fall in love with his charismatic performance.


The way the story is told, using the young Brain / older Brian dyptich structure, Love and Mercy works well to not just re-tell the story (one that certainly a lot of people know about already in general, if not obsess over) but to bookend two chapters of Brian's life for a reason. We see Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy, in somewhat of a one-note role, over-medicate Brian and hector him for his own purposes in ways that cleverly mirror how the relationship between Brian and his father are portrayed in earlier scenes. Giamatti also sometimes gamely tries to find a purpose beyond "the antagonist" but often the script calls for him to fall back on simple rage while taking advantage of Brian's instability.


The mental illness issue is handled from the point of view of modern medicine and is not an exploitation of the illness like a 'Brian in Bedfest' which makes the film more than a made-for-TV movie. Still, the film captures Brian's chaotic state in a palette of pastel greens and watery undulating blues (Robert Yeoman) which serve to convey a trippy almost pleasant but in the end dulling depression very effectively. A few short meta-hallucination scenes in the film depict Brian viewing himself as a baby in adult Brian's bed as well.These brief moments might just be perplexing to the average movie-goer though it would have been interesting to see a script full of such magical-realism.


For the most part, Brian deals with audio hallucinations in many moments of strangely threatening quiet throughout the picture. These make more sense than Kubrickian hallucinations and give us ways to experience empathetically Brian's challenged and inspired musical mind. Thus, the film isn't a freakshow to sell tickets, rather Wilson's mental challenges are ultimately depicted as symptoms of his genius and treated as an issue of physical and mental abuse by others (including eventual over-medication by Landy). The film ends with an epigraph noting that once the mis-diagnosis by Landy of paranoid schizophrenia was corrected and Brian was able to get the right medication, he improved. Better care was all he ever needed.


Love and Mercy makes sure that Brian Wilson remains the beautiful dreamer throughout the picture, an empathetic genius beset by thoughts beyond his control. Because of that, it is really Elizabeth Banks playing Melinda Wilson who is in some ways the most fully dimensionalized human of the movie, and its heart (beyond a smaller role for Brain's maid and caretaker Gloria).  Banks is the one who plays proxy for the audience. Underneath a wonderful over-done hair job and makeup (reflective of her taste and social class but something that forces us to look for more beneath the surface), she arches her eyebrows and channels our skepticism for Landy's actions in a way that is not over-played despite the fact that this her main mode of expression. Instead, Banks fleshes out the motivations and offers what seems like genuine care for a slightly damaged creative genius; she does not overplay it. She calls what she likes about him "honest" and we believe her. Even when her character is later determined to be more detached from the emotional drama that swirls around Wilson and Landy, Banks does a good job of realistically letting her characters' underlying nascent love shine through.


Meanwhile, while slightly off-putting as the older Wilson at first due to his recognizable characteristics, John Cusack does in fact inhabit the role very well, offering believability and subtle complexity. He gets the speech and mannerisms just right and really delivers in terms of what the film needs him to be. Perhaps one of Pohler's best decisions as director was the casting of Banks and Cusack; they have a believable and gentle chemistry. In the end, they all do a great job managing to evoke Brian's child-like demeanor in his later years without making him come off as a child.  


We know he is the way he is sometimes due to the medication (his caretaker and maid Gloria hides some of it to prevent even worse; we see a pickle jar filled with pills) but beyond that the key to us staying sympathetic to Brian is Cusack's performance. Rather than Brian coming off as a cartoon without agency, Cusack hits notes of resigned humor about the situation and shows glimpses of an adult which the adults watching the film want to see. Hence, we have sympathy for Cusack's Brian even when he is a little on the edge of being sympathetic (and thus nearing the line where the sym drops off and just leaves pathetic).


Paul Dano's work as the young Brian captures very well the same kind of intensity he has shown in other roles; we believe in his creative fire in the studio and those are his best scenes by far. Still, sometimes he seems to have a perpetually weepy demeanor that is somehow less sympathetic than the more mature and gentle Brain we see from Cusack. While we understand that he is under enormous pressure, mentally unstable, and a musical genius, too often the range Dano offers us is a pendulum that swings from bummed out artist trying to make great work to outbursts which seem self-pitying. Still, given the difficulty of maintaining such a high pitch for a whole movie without burining the audience out, overall Dano delivers a very worthwhile performance.


Of course, any movie about Brian Wilson's music better bring the noise. Atticus Ross delivers some very interesting cues here. In his private moments, we see Brian awash in oceanic waves of sound suffusing his consciousness. In the film's credits, those churning harmonies were revealed to be amalgams of up to 15 Beach Boys songs at a time all blended into each other. Often it was mesmerizing as a perfect audio illustration of his mental state.


While there is enough drama in the Wilson family canon for a ten hour mini-marathon, the film wisely concentrates on two of Brian's most important eras (Pet Sounds/Smile and his comeback era) which might be the most easily accessible to audiences who are not Beach Boys superfans and which secure Brian's legacy and bio as ultimately a triumph not a tragedy. The film is of course called "Love and Mercy," the title of one of Brian's most heartfelt and successful songs of the 1980's. The song, a live version which ends the film as the credits roll, is shown to be a ditty first composed to impress Melinda off the cuff. It might have been nice to --instead of being told it happened-- being shown Brian in a better place working on the song to end the movie. The live performance clip is nice but it would have been good to see Cusack in the studio recording the song, a man in his element again and a mirror of earlier studio scenes first before we go to the credits, thus setting up the payoff of the song better when it plays during the credit roll. Nonetheless, the film is a little over two hours as it is so there must have been a enormous amount of material they considered and had to cut.


In the end, it is a fantastic film. Not in wide release yet, but I will make a prediction: Love and Mercy, working the rich dramatic American artist true story territory as it does, will see some decent box office and nominations come award season, especially for sound design, Cusack and Banks' performances, as well as for producer/director Pohlad and cinematographer Yeoman.  (Love and Mercy / Roadside Attractions. Release Date: June 2015).

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