"I was sittin' in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin..."
That's not a statement in regards to the film this review is covering. Rather, it's the first line of the song of this movie's namesake. Brian Wilson's 1988 tune "Love & Mercy" is a vitally important one in the Beach Boy visionary's legendary songbook, if also a sadly lesser-known entry.
Wilson was and perhaps still is a mad musical genius, realizing fully formed, intensely ornate, layered harmonies in his head, then bringing them to stunning life. If you don't know "I Get Around," "Help Me Rhonda," "Good Vibrations," or "Wouldn't It Be Nice," not to mention dozens of other iconic songs of the last century, you've been living under a very heavy rock on a very remote beach.
The fact that the makers of Wilson's definitive biopic would choose this song (which was ironically sniped off the charts by his then-former band's resurgence hit "Kokomo," which Wilson had nothing to do with) as its title demonstrates that they clearly, clearly know their subject. Over time, it has served as nothing less than Wilson's personal anthem.
He closes his concerts with "Love & Mercy," he signs his chat room postings "L&M, Brian," and when he was being awarded by the Kennedy Center, the children's choir singing "Love & Mercy" was the emotional closer that appeared to hit him hardest. The song is a beautiful, poetic and honest plea for love amid what turned out to be one of the worst portions of a life wrought with abuse, withdrawal and depression. Plus, it takes a bit of guts to go with a song with "crummy movie" in its opening line. That's critic-bait if there ever was any. Fortunately, Love & Mercy the movie is far from crummy.
The songwriting credits of "Love & Mercy," along with many of the songs on the album that housed it, were co-credited to Dr. Eugene Landy, a gold-digging medical doctor who took horrible advantage of his famously troubled patient. Yes, Landy's time with Wilson led to partial recovery from the kind of drug abuse that killed Brian's younger brother, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.
But Landy shepherded such baby-steps of progress while also seizing control over every aspect of Brian's life as well as his financial assets. When the time came for Wilson's autobiography to be written, that too was the work of Landy. (Resulting in a deeply nightmarish read.) The film seems to posit, in fact, that Landy was quite apparently setting him up for a final fall.
This chapter of Brian Wilson's life is the one portion that hasn't been covered in the several other Brian Wilson/Beach Boys autobiographical films. Yet, it is the essential, and hopefully final bit of life drama for Wilson to overcome in what may be the ultimate story of a musician's spiritual and creative restoration.
Love & Mercy demonstrates that the culturally inground hits of the Beach Boys came from somewhere - someone - and weren't just always around. For example, before "Good Vibrations" was co-opted by orange juice commercials, Brian Wilson, his band, and a small army of studio musicians tranversed studios and defied the rules of recording to forge something wholly unique.
Through the regularly intercut flashbacks of the Beach Boys' heyday (going as far as to restage the entire "Sloop John B" music video clip), we are effectively let into Wilson's world as he orchestrated the groundbreaking album Pet Sounds, but also shown the early unfraying of his psyche, musically actualized in painstaking manner by Atticus Ross.
Ross, who's teamed with Trent Reznor or on numerous David Fincher film scores, winning an Academy Award for The Social Network, mines the Beach Boys' catalog in order to create several experimental new compositions that effectively demonstrate Brian's failing mental state throughout the film. And yet, historically and for all time, the original music speaks for itself.
Although director Bill Pohlad only has one other such credit to his name, a 1990 film called Old Explorers, his producing credits are most impressive, including but not limited to 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, Wild, and Brokeback Mountain. While his directorial ability to selectively parse out information and keep his true story moving naturally is a tall feat, it's one he doesn't quite pull off perfectly. (For example, a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference late in the film was ill-advised.)
Nevertheless, Love & Mercy is still one of the best films of 2015 so far. It's safe to say Pohlad learned a thing or two from his collaborations with Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick, Jean-Marc Vallee, and Ang Lee.
The Beach Boys built a career singing about endless summers, making it only fitting that Love & Mercy open in June. Of course, summer at the movies is always full of heroes and villains, and this film has true-life representations of both. Paul Giamatti as Landy, the unquestionable villain of the piece, does a fine job of doing exactly what he was hired to do: skeezy creepo. My nit to pick is that this skeezy creepo Landy oozes far too much conniving repulsion; shouldn't Dr. Landy exhibit the surface charm of Lucifer? I'm at a loss how such a Giamatti-ified specialist, for lack of a better term, would get hired in the first place.
But then again, the film is told through the eyes of Wilson's love interest, Melinda Ledbetter. (Just don't think too hard about the narrative prevalence of the flashbacks.) The always charming and personable Banks is easy to root for and relate to. She indeed sees Landy for what he is almost immediately, as the doctor has it in for her as far as Brian is concerned. In the terms of the film, it is her love that must bring deliverance from the darkness of the past and present, and shine through she must, if Wilson is finally to have elusive restoration.
As for the two versions of Brian Wilson intercut throughout the film, a gutsy move that I frankly didn't expect to work, both are very good in their own ways. And although Dano bears quite the physical resemblance to young Wilson, and his internalized acting style compliments the character's inner recoiling, the edge goes to John Cusack, who nails the older, far-gone Wilson in nuanced and unexpected ways.
Cusack sells himself as Wilson without seemingly trying, occasionally working in true life hand gestures and odd enunciations. The whole performance might be the more conventional one, but it's in no way shallow. It is the best work Cusack has done in quite some time. Together, both actors, despite the fact that they barely even resemble each other, make up a different kind of singular portait of a senitive, shattered genius of a man.
As far as this Brian Wilson fan is concerned, Love & Mercy is what you need tonight, and at the movies.