Love & Mercy opens with the line “I was sitting in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin.” Luckily for Brian Wilson, this is not a crummy movie, thus sparing him from the indignity of seeing every reviewer make the obvious joke.
Love & Mercy has no right being as good as it is. After all, the life of Brian Wilson is an enormously complicated one, because his life is a series of contradictions. As a young man, he had a wisdom beyond his years and was able to accomplish things that many better established musicians could only dream of accomplishing. As an adult, he was a man child who struggled with simple things – even things that he had been doing easily a few years earlier. His story is separate from that of the Beach Boys, and yet also a crucial part of it. It’s a story that is both cinematic and impossible to adapt for the screen.
Despite the difficulty of adapting this tale, it has been attempted before. Summer Dreams was a TV movie from 1990 and certainly a product of it’s time. The film primarily focuses on Dennis Wilson, spanning 20 years of his life over the course of an hour and a half; needless to say, a few things are left out. A decade later, An American Family had the luxury of time. Not only does the mini-series cover a shorter period of history, but it also had two nights to tell its story, clocking in at three hours in length. This production is by no means perfect, but it is pretty darn good for a miniseries from 2000. Not every member gets enough screen time, but major moments in the band are documented and every member has moments where they are portrayed favorably and non-favorably.
Love & Mercy benefits from narrowing in on two very specific moments in Brian Wilson’s life. That said, some liberties are taken, although none of them are intended to stroke egos or rewrite history; these changes just simplify the story and streamline it, saving more time for important moments. By focusing on two periods in Wilson’s life, the movie draws attention to the fact that certain details were omitted. For instance, we hear 80s Wilson saying that he sat in bed for three years, yet we see him get in bed at the end of the 60s portion. I saw the film with someone who isn’t intimately familiar with Wilson’s life (as I imagine most aren’t), and they were unfortunately confused about what exactly happened during that time jump.
To be fair, the film doesn’t claim to be Wilson’s life story, it’s just the story of his downfall and (the beginning of) his return. That said, these two moments – while both enormously interesting – have very little thematic connection. In the 60s scenes, Wilson is surrounded by his wife and brothers, who all love him and try to comfort him. The only one who doesn’t do any of this is lead singer Mike Love; sadly, all of Love’s complaints are warranted. The songs’ lyrics are hard to comprehend and not commercially viable. Anti-Love rhetoric spread throughout the years by Wilson and his crowd points to Love as the one who drove Brian mad because he offered no support and was openly confrontational. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go down that path and instead makes Love (for the most part) a voice of reason. This makes his skepticism even more powerful, as it’s not just treated like pure evil or blind hatred.
The 80s portions feature Wilson with no support system and looking for help getting out of the evil Dr. Landy’s grip. Melinda helps him escape the situation with the help of Brian’s brother Carl. Unfortunately, neither Carl nor any of the other Beach Boys are given any screen time during the 80s sections. Not only does this seem like an injustice based on what actually happened, but it is also a disservice to the film. Yes, by all accounts Melinda Wilson helped Brian to recover, but it was a court order brought forth by the band that legally separated Brian from Landy. Love & Mercy doesn’t spend any time explaining what the other band members did to allow Landy to take control, nor does it show us how bad Brian actually got. The film tells us how bad Brian got, but it doesn’t actually show us. There are one or two scenes showing Brian at his worst, leaving his family no other choice but to call in the controversial therapist who could have worked wonders. Similarly, the story of the band proving that they had Brian’s best interest at heart by having Landy removed would have been a more satisfying resolution than showing his family abandoning him (with a court order partially to blame), leaving love (something he already had) as the only thing left to help get him out of his horrible living conditions and learn to cope with his mental illness.
It may not sound like it, but I really enjoyed the film. The problems that I have mostly stem from being a hardcore fan who thinks the film could have been better. All of my complaints are purely on a story level, as the directing is stellar. The director portrays the two different decades as vastly different; from frame one, you can easily decipher which decade you are in. The 60s segments are bright and colorful, the music is loud and clear. Even when it’s just the sounds of a radio, the audio is always important to the scene. Certain segments are shot-for-shot recreations of existing footage which are constructed so well that even the most eagle eyed Beach Boys fans might forget they are watching recreated footage. The costume design is eerily authentic, as is the set design. The film is also shot in the real locations where the story takes place, which helps to add to its authenticity. The 80s segments are slower; music is present, but almost inaudible, which really creates a feeling of being a fly on the wall of this insane set situation. Both sections of the film have sequences that feel voyeuristic: One makes the audience glad to be there while the other makes their stomach turn, showing just how bad Wilson’s life had become.
The true star of the film is Paul Dano, who disappears into the role of Wilson. Unlike previous portrayals of Wilson, Dano manages to capture his humor and blurs the lines between Wilson playing around and/or being mentally unstable. In the hands of a lesser actor, lines like “I’m going to create the greatest album ever made” could (and, historically, have) been cringe inducing or laughable – and yet somehow, Dano sells it. Not only does he look like Wilson, he sounds like him as well. Brian Wilson’s voice is so unique and distinct that you can tell when its Paul Dano singing, but he still manages to sing these songs in a way that sounds effortless, something challenging to anyone other than Wilson thanks to their complexity. My only complaint is that more time is not spent with Dano. During one scene, we see the recording of Pet Sounds, in which Paul has done his research and his lines are lifted directly from The Pet Sound Sessions and The Smile Sessions box sets. The film shows young Wilson as a mad genius of sorts, going to crazy lengths to get the sounds that he wants. We see this portion of the film from Brian’s perspective, and we hear what’s in his head in every scene. What we don’t hear is Brian explaining why he wants a dog barking at the end of “Caroline No,” other than the fact that he hears it in his head. (Pet Sounds is a coming of age album and “Caroline No” is the final song on the album, signifying the complete loss of innocence. The dogs barking could be barking at a high frequency sound that is inaudible to those past a certain age, once again driving home the fact that one is no longer an optimistic youth. Also, it ties into the title Pet Sounds.)
Love & Mercy features some of the best sound design of any film I’ve ever seen. It, along with Dano’s performance, are deserving of Oscar nominations, if not wins. The sound design is artful, but not for it’s own sake, as it is always in service of the story and the character. Atticus Ross’ soundtrack creates a soundscape that reimagines and edits sounds and melodies I’ve heard millions of times and turns them into something new. It is a shame there won’t be a soundtrack for the album.
Wilson did contribute one original song to the film: “One Kind of Love” actually first appeared on No Pier Pressure, but was written for the film. In that case, the song was one of the album’s highlights. Sadly, the same isn’t true for the movie, but it does manage to hold its ground alongside Beach Boys classics, something than many recent Wilson songs cannot.
Cusack’s Wilson is a quiet and broken man. Unlike videos and interviews we have of Brian at the time, Cusack is not at all animated. 80s Brian seems to be bouncing off the walls with excitement and speaking a mile minute, likely due to over-medication. Cusack’s Wilson could be the result of the huge comedown after those first couple years of over-medication, but the film’s unclear timeline leaves it up for debate. Historical accuracy aside, Cusack does a surprisingly good job. I’ve never considered Cusack to be an actor who becomes his subject, but rather someone who was cast as characters similar to him. However, he does a great job of being a broken man while still having a childlike quality, although he is not the focus of the 80s sections of the film.
Elizabeth Banks portrays Melinda Wilson (nee Ledbetter), a woman who is placed in the middle of an extreme situation. She’s not given much to work with besides being surprised, amazed and loving, but she gives a performance that helps the audience transition into the odd lifestyle of Brian Wilson. Her role’s size and arguably overstated performance make it no surprise that the real life Melinda Wilson had a large part to play in the development of Love & Mercy.
Paul Giamati’s Landy might not be his best performance, but the man is heavily respected for good reason. His portrayal of Landy has an artificial smile that makes you feel uneasy, and although there are a few moments where he appears to have genuine concern for Wilson, those scenes aren’t nearly convincing enough. As it stands, this man seems so evil that it’s impossible to understand why Wilson would be in his care. The real life Landy – at least from what we can tell in interviews – does a really good job of faking (or in his own deprived way expressing) his love of Wilson. Perhaps with more time, Giamatti could create a more nuanced character. Unfortunately, because of the film’s choice to serve two masters, here he is little more than an evil scientist.
Love & Mercy is probably the best film adaptation of Brian Wilson’s story that he could get. The film attempts to do the impossible, and while it doesn’t succeed, it does a great job nonetheless. It was enjoyable to this Beach Boys fan, but I’m not sure how it would stack up for viewers who aren’t fans. Regardless, I’m sure it’ll be converting quite a few new fans.