Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks and Kenny Wormald
The life of reclusive and eccentric Beach Boys songwriter and musician Brian Wilson.
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★★★★ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd
A recording studio in Southern California. A group of studio musicians assembled. An undeniably brilliant (and possibly insane) young man wanders the room, obsessively perfecting each instrument’s part. One player calls him over. Something is wrong. All the strings are in one key, and the horns are in another. How is it going to work?
Brian Wilson shrugs. It works in his head. So it will work on tape.
LOVE & MERCY is like that too. It tells two simultaneous stories about one man played by two actors working in very different keys. Paul Dano uncannily recreates the young Brian Wilson; he looks and sounds just like him. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson and looks and sounds just like ... John Cusack. He bears little physical or aural resemblance to Wilson (or, for that matter, to Dano). But he gives a strong performance all the same. It’s just a different sort of performance. Played together, the two are greater than the sum of their parts, like individual vocal lines that blend together to form a beautiful harmony about surfing or little deuce coupes.
Most of the drama comes in the Cusack chapters; with a mentally unbalanced Wilson under the control of an unethical psychotherapist named Eugene Landy (a well-cast, if poorly-wigged, Paul Giamatti). The older Wilson falls for a Cadillac car salesman (Elizabeth Banks), who begins to question Landy’s treatments. But most of the soul comes from the Dano chapters, with the brilliant but mentally troubled young Wilson reaching his creative peak and his emotional nadir. Watching Dano fall enriches Cusack’s rise.
The only sour notes come at the end, when the film tries to blend Dano and Cusack together in a way that feels forced. (Also: Wouldn’t it be nice if a song about the Beach Boys didn’t have to end with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”?) But overall, I found this to be a surprisingly effective and extremely moving portrait of an artist at his highest and lowest, not to mention one that avoids most music biopic pitfalls (and used the ones it doesn’t to its advantage). Dano is particularly impressive. Perhaps a long shot, but I hope he’s remembered during awards season. Wouldn’t *that* be nice?
★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
i’d almost forgotten that biopics could be this soulful, probing, and empathetic. (feels a touch reductive to use the b-word). if only Oren Moverman had time for all of the great musicians. poor RAY, ya know? he really got shafted. Dano is brilliant as "past" Brian Wilson, and John Cusack is... well, he's definitely alive. and, as "future" Brian Wilson, better than he's been in anything since High Fidelity.
★★★½ review by brat pitt on Letterboxd
i've been singing the lyric "god only knows what i'd be without you" to my cat ever since i watched this. please help it's been 3 days straight of constant singing & i'd like to stop but can't. curse you paul dano
★★★★½ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
Unlike anything I've ever seen, as it simultaneously condenses and expands on the tropes of the "sub-genre" (biopic) that it's been unfortunately squeezed into. Todd Haynes crafted 6 different versions of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There., but Bill Pohlad was wise in sticking with the dual-structure, especially because the conclusion rhymes in a way that works towards its yearning, symmetrical fashion. Separate sections of a complete whole have never felt so brilliant in their various contradictions, and like the good old days of vinyl, Love and Mercy enthralls like a perfect A-Side/B-Side record.
The two performances, both portraying Brian Wilson but each in different mindsets and settings (60s and the 80s), by Paul Dano and John Cusack are, each in their own way, extraordinary. Dano has the obvious advantage in playing younger Wilson, as his material is much more meaty and alive (reenacting the creation of Pet Sounds must have been a dream of a role), but Cusack is just as riveting in a tale that reeks of dirt and grime, pain and sorrow, control and eventual liberation. While one section is the equivalent of a hazy California dream, complete with dreamy 16mm photography and documentary-style freedom, the other feels like a harsh 80s Noir, startling but beautiful in its connection.
It's strange to think, that even in the span of decades, that they're the same person. So much is missing, but it is in the gaps of facts where the mysteries of genius take hold. A simple "from birth to death" story would've been catastrophic. Like the monumental, soul-searing album of Pet Sounds, Love and Mercy delights in the experimental beauty of trickery and minute details. It isn't about what is missing or lost to the tales of rumor, but what is explored through creation.
Essentially, Brian Wilson went after the prospects of truth by crafting music for the soul, rummaging through the sounds of his head and translating it onto sheet music, and Love and Mercy reaches for that same cathartic discovery. Atticus Ross' ambient soundtrack is glorious but unsettling, as it reflects the ethos of Brian's mentality but continuously reminds the audience of his sickness. Fascinating at first, the top-notch editing soon works in complete synchronization in order to effectively demonstrate Brian's mental state. It's deliriously sickening, but it has the benefit of added contrast in the more serene moments of the later time-period.
Love and Mercy, above all, is a journey, and in spite of that connotation, nothing could describe it better. Two time-periods, two different stories, but one man. One brilliant, fractured, soul, trying to find some sort of love in a world seemingly devoid of it. It's one of the best films that I've seen this year, and in its finest moments, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. Love and Mercy, whether you're a fan of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys or not, is an overwhelming piece of harmony.
★★★★ review by TajLV on Letterboxd
"You think we could get a horse in here?" ~ Brian Wilson
I've had the great good fortune to see Brian Wilson perform live twice and in very different stages of his career. The first time he was with the Beach Boys at the May Day Protests in Washington, DC in 1971. I had come there to voice my opposition to the War in Vietnam and hear rock groups like Jefferson Airplane (who cancelled) play Volunteers and Mitch Ryder sing Just a Shot Away. I remember being unhappy with the bubbly California classics. I wanted to hear protest music!
Fast forward 35 years ... In 2006 I managed to get tickets to see Brian Wilson play solo -- 30 of his greatest hits live, including two encores, at the Cannery Casino in Las Vegas. This time, I was knocked off my feet. He was no longer the surf singer ... he was widely acknowledged as one of the most talented composers in American music history. And the last song he played that night? You guessed it: Love & Mercy.
Seeing this sneak preview courtesy of AARP was therefore a very special treat for me. The film covers the period before and between the two times I saw Wilson perform, filling in gaps and adding to my understanding of the hell he had been through as a man, as a musician, and as the victim of quack psychiatry. It's quite a story, and it's delivered very professionally by Bill Pohlad, who is much better known as a producer. In fact, this is his first time in the director's chair since he debuted in 1990.
The younger Brian (1964~75) is played to perfection by Paul Dano, descending into personal madness even as he is discovering his powerful talent. The older Brian (1976~95) is handled a little less convincingly by John Cusak, showing the devastated former celebrity at the mercy of his controllers who include the despicable therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Elizabeth Banks has a stand-out role as Brian's new-found love interest, car saleswoman and former model Melinda Ledbetter, and Brett Davern is excellent as Brian's brother Carl Wilson.
Perhaps the surfeit of of biopics in the run up to the most recent Academy Awards was why distribution of this film was held back. It has some real Oscar-level qualities, but showings have been limited to the festival circuit since its debut at TIFF in Canada last September. It's only this Friday (June 5) that the film will go into mainstream release in the United States. I enjoyed it, and I'll be anxious to see how it fares.
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