Movie Review: “Love and Mercy” – Honest and Emotional Portrait

Written by Joey Simpson June 25, 2015

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Over half a century later, the history of popular music’s pivotal moments are still performed and re-imagined through the near disorienting array of biopics. Just last year, James Brown received the posthumous honour of an above-par film celebrating his achievements and music with due diligence and respect. CBGB, a room bedazzled in rock ‘n’ roll legend, has been lovingly preserved as a museum, and in mediocre film fare with Alan Rickman playing the famous CBGB owner Hilly Krystal in 2013’s CBGB. Although, sometimes you receive a rare glimpse, that goes beyond a fan-turned-producer owing fealty to a musical icon, and into the complex layers of celebrity and fame. Works like Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There and Anton Corbijn’s Control use the biographical form and data in service of the introspective, often pondering what ‘fame’ means for both an artist and fans. The latest musical biopic, Love and Mercy, about the life of Brian Wilson, is an emotional work, hoping to do away with the reverence and meta-narrative of an artist’s work, and focus on the messier details of a human being unequipped with his Faustian bargain with rock stardom.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice

In a move reminiscent of I’m Not There’s use of different actors as avatars for Bob Dylan’s psyche, Brian Wilson’s life is shown in two periods. Paul Dano plays Brian during his younger and most productive years during the recording of Pet Sounds, the “Good Vibrations” single, and his self-destruction with the percieved failure of his masterpiece SMiLE. In the 80’s, John Cusack plays a burnt-out, passive, and troubled version of the Beach Boys’ mastermind; living in a world in which his creations are ubiquitous, but the man himself is more isolated than ever before. Rather than rehearsing and rehashing the chronology of events as rock historians have compiled and fortified, the film tells Brian Wilson’s story at two junctures in his life that proved his most emotionally draining.

A great deal of mythology is created around Wilson, namely for his innovative recording and composition on albums like Pet Sounds, for which an entire mini series may only adequately inform a viewer about the processes that Brian Wilson transgressed and developed essentially from scratch. The film allots a necessary amount of time to bask in Wilson’s achievements, but only as it serves the story. In these scenes, where Paul Dano whimsically bounces around the studio methodically tampering with pianos and taking numerous takes of seemingly pure noise, we see the kind of mania that can produce geniuses and destroy them. We bounce from the frenetic studio scenes, to the drab, pale-white world of the 80’s, where Cusack devastates with a quiet, reserved explosion as the Brian Wilson not frequently seen by fans of the music.

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God Only Knows

Unlike most other biopics, Love and Mercy isn’t driven so much by plot as it does survey the various sources of pride and shame in Wilson’s life. At 120 minutes, the film still feels like it’s over quickly, as it jumps forward and back in time. Brian Pohlad, initially a producer of some the past decade’s most important films (including Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life), makes his directorial debut with a film that, far from seeming amateurish, takes more creative risks that a preliminary director would choose. From Kubrick-style surrealist editing, and fly-on-the-wall shaky cameras, Pohlad makes a film that is more than a platform for his dual-leads, while still delicately portraying the difficult details of mental illness.

The film’s supporting class succeeds greatly in their roles, despite some issues with their characters. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, a former model and Cadillac saleswoman and Brian Wilson’s eventual second wife, while Paul Giamatti plays Wilson’s scheming and abusive psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy. Unfortunately for the actors, their roles are too black and white to develop as complexly as Dano and Cusack. Perhaps because the 60’s era is so much more colourful and familiar to fans of Wilson, that a more melodramatic film was crafted for the pale-white 80’s sequence.

While many musical biopics can something seem to made just to sell the soundtrack, the more people seeing the film and listening to Pet Sounds right after, the better. For a stellar cast and refreshing take on the biopic, Love and Mercy is definitely worth your time.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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