Love & Mercy
With the Oscar success of films like Walk the Line, Dream Girls, and Ray, rock music biopics slipped into a comfortable formula certain to be catnip for the award season. There's a tragic childhood, major drug addiction, and central romantic relationship that lasts a lifetime or turns abusive. They cast an A-list actor who will transform into the legendary musician, with the same actor playing the subject for his or her entire adult life with the help of some ridiculous-looking makeup and prosthetics. And for certain, a lot of rock musicians fall into the same cycle of clichés. Maybe that's why they've been so ripe for parody—see Rob Reiner's classic mockumentary Spinal Tap, Eric Idle's Beatles' knockoff The Rutles, and most recently Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Some of the more interesting music films in the last 10 years have avoided this formula, whether it was Todd Hayne's imperfect but interesting collage of Bob Dylans in I'm Not There, or last year's James Brown biopic Get On Up, which took a lesser-known actor in Chadwick Bozeman and centered on the relationship between Brown and his right-hand man and best friend Bobby Byrd rather than some grand love story.
Love & Mercy, the new biopic on the enigmatic Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, similarly skirts the usual conventions and rock music clichés. The film bounces back and forth between the two most significant periods of Wilson's life: the making of the masterwork Pet Sounds and the scrapped magnum opus Smile in 1966 and 1967, and the darker period in the mid-1980s when Wilson was under the spell and care of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (played by the reliably great Paul Giamatti), who over-medicated Wilson and micro-managed every aspect of his life, even his relationships. The two periods of Wilson are played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, neither of whom looks much like him, but that doesn't appear to be the film's primary concern. While it does take a few moments longer to suspend disbelief in each as Wilson—Dano because he doesn't seem handsome enough compared to the other Beach Boys cast, and Cusack because he's so well known for other roles—once you get into the meat of the film, both actors are convincing and turn in dynamic performances. Especially Dano, who captures Wilson fragile, creative mind by employing vulnerability and childlike enthusiasm.
Wilson had an abusive father who is believed to be at least partially responsible for Brian's deafness in one ear. Murry Wilson figures in the '60s portion of the film, showing his lack of belief in Brian when he plays him "God Only Knows" on the piano—a song which Paul McCartney would later call "the greatest song ever written"—and later in the studio plays Brian and his brothers a song by the Sunrays, a band still relying on the old mix of surf, cars, and girls. The father's intent is to flaunt his new success with a band that was sticking with what worked rather than trying something new as Brian was. Brian got the last laugh years later, but only after going through years of struggle and opposition.
Much of the joy of Love & Mercy comes from hearing and seeing the origin of so many timeless Beach Boys songs, and Wilson's mind spinning as he comes up with melodies and unconventional yet brilliant recording decisions. Many people don't realize Wilson recorded Pet Sounds when his brothers and bandmates were touring, bringing in the Wrecking Crew, the legendary studio band responsible for more hits than almost any other, and instructing them to play the symphony that he heard in his head. When the other members of the Beach Boys returned, they contributed by singing their lines as Brian instructed.
The moments showing Wilson in his element in the studio are something to marvel at: putting hairpins on the piano strings for "You Still Believe in Me"; instructing drummer Hal Blaine to keep a thudding mistake on "Wouldn't It Be Nice"; and instructing a world-class cellist several times to play like she never has before on "Good Vibrations." The joy on Wilson's face in the studio as inspiration after inspiration hits him is palpable. The film's high point is the recording of "Good Vibrations," Wilson's pocket symphony to God, which was one of the Beach Boys' only songs to reach both commercial and creative heights while pleasing all the members of the band. Watching this sequence, it's hard not to envision God smiling down on the song's creation.
People rightly applaud the brilliant recordings of the Beatles (my own favorite band), but they had Lennon and McCartney writing together, George Harrison contributing his own songs, and George Martin as the master producer. Pet Sounds had the creative vision of the 24-year-old Brian Wilson, with one good ear, who really was a once-a-century talent. No wonder he has been compared to Mozart and Beethoven.