Movie Review: “Love & Mercy” (Bill Pohlad, USA 2014)

The most important songwriters in rock history are Jon Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, and Brian Wilson. There are plenty of other greats and plenty of others who are important, but I think that’s pretty clearly the top group. I’ve heard many times over the years of the concept of stripping a song to a basic acoustic arrangement as the way to judge the songwriting, and none of those writers fares better under that test than Brian Wilson. Yet Wilson’s enduring legacy is of being a legendary nutcase, in that same category with Howard Hughes and Mike Tyson. His musical legacy has always remained one that’s understood by musicians themselves and self-appointed rock and roll buffs like myself but covered over by the story of his insanity for the general public.

The musician biopic is always the same story: Person seeks refuge from pain in music, becomes famous, loses what made them great in a haze of ego and/or drugs, then seeks redemption with one final great song. Brian Wilson’s story isn’t all that different: he was a preternaturally talented musician who used music as a way to placate a harsh, abusive father. He was the primary songwriter for the most successful American musical act of the early 1960s and recognized within the music industry as one of the leaders of the psychedelic movement of the latter half of the decade. Then, at the peak of his powers, he changed the band’s direction either because of self-aggrandizement or drug addiction, and lost the surf rock audience that had made the band so successful. He became lost in a sea of mental health problems and drug issues for 25 years, eventually basically handing his life over to a charlatan psychiatrist until his family and eventual wife pulled him out and he was able to return to an industry in which he should have been a giant for the decades when he was absent.

However, Bill Pohlad makes a surprisingly different film. It’s not so much a film about Brian Wilson’s life as it is a film about the love story between Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter–there’s a reason it’s title Love & Mercy instead of Good Vibrations, SMiLE, or Wouldn’t It Be Nice. As a love story, what it has to say is of course about love, and it’s not something as profound as a Woody Allen film, but it’s a coherent message nonetheless: love is caring so much for someone that you don’t need anything from them. It’s simple, yes, but the film sticks to it.

Narratively, the film bounces back and forth between the late ’80s and the mid ’60s. In the later timeframe, Wilson begins under the thumb of the villainous Eugene Landy and falls in love with Melinda Ledbetter, a car salesperson who then frees him from Landy and eventually marries him. In the earlier period, we see Wilson respond to the Beatles’ artistic growth and the oncoming “psychedelic era” by adopting never-before-seen recording techniques and mature lyrics that act as an abrupt departure from the party-time surf rock that had once made the Beach Boys so famous and then begin to have a mental breakdown under the pressure his father, his bandmates, and he himself put on him as his new direction largely fails. This period focuses on the famed recording of Pet Sounds, an album that failed commercially at the time only to be considered one of the great classics of rock and roll in later years, the incredible success of the brilliant “Good Vibrations,” and then the troubled, legendary recording of SMiLE, a project Wilson would not complete until 2004 and even then would admit to having finished in a far different fashion than he had originally planned. The reason for the bouncing narrative is to show the difference between the adoration that Brian receives from others in his heyday versus the true love Melinda shows him in his later years: Mike Love is great to Brian when he’s writing “Good Vibrations” because he can hear what a great song it is but treats him like crap during all recording sessions because he simply does not understand what Brian is doing. His drug friends are all telling him how great he is as long as he continues to bring in money and weed but don’t seem to notice the deep well of sadness within him. But Melinda is willing to lose him in order to get him away from Landy–she’d rather he be happy on his own than make his life worse through her presence.

It’s an interesting structure, but one that takes some time to reveal itself–early in the film, it feels like Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner are just trying to make us wonder how this unbelievably talented, successful musician turned into this middle-aged man who is basically owned by a vicious psychiatrist who fills the same role as a sort of executioner who is never satisfied that his father once filled, which is pretty uninteresting since we all know how that happened. Over time, it becomes clear that the film is not really about Brian Wilson but about that love story, and then the structure makes sense.

The film doesn’t stay entirely focused on its point, meandering into Brian’s relationships with his family without really exploring the idea that they are or aren’t after something from him and showing us some of the musical differences that marred Pet Sounds and SMiLE when they had nothing to do with the point of the film, but it stays on point better than one might expect given its status as a biopic of such a legendary figure.

Pohlad and Robert D. Yeoman don’t draw much attention to their visual stylings, staying relatively conventional, but instead Pohlad and composer Atticus Ross go to work trying some very interesting work with the sound, which is a rather brilliant idea for a film about Brian Wilson. They build a fascinating soundscape out of bits and pieces of Beach Boys recordings and new orchestrations built on Beach Boys sounds. It’s an incredible sounding film, and it seems that Pohlad kept the visuals relatively conventional so that we could focus on those sounds.

The acting is generally good. Pohlad made the interesting and probably good choice to have two different actors play Wilson–the younger played by Paul Dano and the older played by John Cusack. Dano has to play a subtle, muted version of Wilson, one who cannot betray his internal emotions for fear of his family seeing them, and he mostly does so credibly. There are a few scenes where his wide-eyed stare feels more like an actor who doesn’t know how to play what he’s feeling than anything else, but it’s mostly a strong performance. John Cusack has spent his entire career playing one character, and he plays that same character with a few added physical ticks in this one. But the reason he keeps getting cast to play that one character is that he’s really, really good at it, and he was this time as well. Paul Giamatti is almost humorously over-the-top, to the point that I really feel like his was a cartoonish performance that didn’t belong in the film. It was a rare miss from such a talented actor, but it was a miss. Elizabeth Banks, while she has a lot of screen time, really doesn’t have much to do. She has to look pretty and be able to stare down a screaming Giamatti (and since he’s about four feet tall, he’s not as intimidating as one might think), and she does that well. She just isn’t asked to do any more.

All told, Love and Mercy is a good film. It’s not earth-shattering and it has some flaws, but it’s more interesting than I feared a Brian Wilson biopic might be. It’s not Ray with way better music–this film is something of its own, and it’s all the better for it. Plus, you do after all get to spend two hours listening mostly to the Beach Boys at their best, which is certainly not something worth complaining about.

Notes

  • “Doesn’t this guy sound just like Brian?” So did 1/3 of the singers on the air at the time. Carl had a distinctive and impressive voice, but the rest of the Beach Boys were not very distinctive singers. Brian was one of the first people in rock and roll to realize that it was the lines that the singers sing rather than the voices that made for great harmonies, an idea that clearly had a profound effect on a certain British foursome who couldn’t sing well. This moment shows that for all his bluster, the Wilsons’ father actually doesn’t know anything about music. And that’s before we even consider that, as Brian says, artists need to grow and evolve or else they die.
  • Brian’s father is the only person who ever heard “God Only Knows” for the first time and said, “I don’t care for it.” I don’t quite share Paul McCartney’s opinion of it, but it’s a beautiful song.
  • What really impresses me about the depiction of Landy is that it is so unflinchingly negative that it’s clear that no one is worried about attempted legal reprisal. He must really have been awful.
  • I do wonder how they went through so much of SMiLE, even showing the recording of “The Elements: Fire” without mentioning the fires near the studio that apparently so freaked out Brian. (Though perhaps those fires are more legend than reality–that would not shock me.)
  • For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s a short version of the legend of the fires: While Brian was working on recording a song called “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” about the great Chicago fire, several fires broke out in the neighborhood around the studio. Brian, and others, became convinced that the music was so close to the primal nature of the elements that the song had caused the fires, which freaked out Brian to the point that he destroyed that final version of the song, leaving behind a less powerful version. Supposedly, this incident had a significant effect on Brian’s deterioration and eventual decision to abandon SMiLE. Surely there is a lot of myth in that story, but it still seems odd to leave it out completely.
  • Does the fact that Brian’s version of SMiLE, Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, is mentioned while The SMiLE Sessions is not imply that Wilson does not consider the latter to be a real version of his project?
  • While on the subject of SMiLE, I do feel like it should be pointed out that hardly anything was actually new on the 2004 release. Wilson apparently essentially had the album finished back in 1967, but the arguments with the record company and his bandmates and apparently his own concerns about the “dangerous” quality of the music essentially killed the album anyway. The release of The SMiLE Sessions emphasizes that further, using only the 1967 tapes to construct Brian’s magnum opus and sounding far more finished than many completed albums.
  • God it’s a pain in the ass to type the word smile with that weird capitalization.
  • I’ve had “Good Vibrations” stuck in my head for two days now.
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