Director: Bill Pohlad
Battle Mountain Films/River Road Entertainment/Roadside Attractions
The perfect music biopic is nearly movie myth but Love & Mercy doesn’t get anything wrong – it’s as good as a narrative vehicle around Brian Wilson’s musical career (and psychological baggage) could be. It includes everything that must be included – we get hints that cousin Mike Love was a jerk, and that dad Murry was a ghastly prick; by jumping between the two worlds of mid-60s (where Paul Dano is almost Doppelganger-like) and the mid-80s (where John Cuasck is more ‘impressionistic’ and goes for mood/vibe/essence – and, despite my initial reservations from seeing the trailer, nails it) we get the parallel between Murry and the evil Eugene Landy. Oh yes, of course Paul Giamatti as Landy is wonderful. Giamatti is almost always wonderful. He’s Pacino-like in his give-the-character-some-yelling moments, but – like Julianne Moore – he seems almost drawn to play characters that are so close to entirely lousy. And he’s a special kind of wonderful when it comes to that sort of ugliness.
Love & Mercy jumps between the start of Wilson’s psychological troubles and mental-health issues, the burnout surrounding the Pet Sounds/Good Vibrations-era of the Beach Boys where the young Wilson was playing the studio like his hero Phil Spector. He was consuming drugs too – and the world was consuming him and then we get glimpses of the pre-Love & Mercy Wilson in the 1980s. He’s out of bed, out of the band, largely out of it. And in a unique situation a con-man psychologist (Landy) was Brian’s around-the-clock physician, advisor, “friend” and legal guardian. Whatever Brian wanted had to go through Landy – this meant Landy scored houses, pianos, credits for co-writing songs and kept Wilson on a short leash via constant surveillance and over-medication.
Enter Melinda Ledbetter, former model turned car salesperson. The film starts with her awkward, auspicious meeting with Wilson. She sells him a car, steals his heart and leads him to the second great recovery in his life. (Here she is played with class by Elizabeth Banks).
None of this, storyline-wise, is news to a fan of Wilson’s music – it’s all there in all of the biographical notes, there have been documentaries, books (including the one this film is based on, wisely adapted by its own author) and the baggage hangs heavy around Wilson in his performances, interviews, appearances.
But the way the story is told here, the pacing, the decision to split up the parts of his life and show how one informed the other, and the acting – well it’s all spot on. In fact everything, the way the movie has been shot – the music-making scenes feel like real, actual fly-on-the-wall music-documentary moments, the score by Atticus Ross feels like the music that swirls in Wilson’s head – still, to this day. It’s part underwater reverie, part perforated-eardrum waterlog.
What we get from this version is all the right notes – Wilson’s fragility, the mental toll of the music he made, the greed of his father, the ego and soullessness of his cousin, the deception of Landy, but also we get the strength of Melinda. A rock for Brian, a person capable of the titular qualities here – love and mercy. It’s what Brian needed from the moment they first met, to this day and of course long before.