The new film Love & Mercy plays not as an examination of mental illness, but more as the portrait of a tortured genius, someone who heard sounds and voices in his head that no one else could hear. Those sounds spoke to him and allowed him to channel them into his art, in the way that artists of all sorts have described the manner in which their work flows through them, aching to be set free. The genius in question here was Brian Wilson, undoubtedly one of the great studio musicians of all time, who peaked in the mid-60's in his early twenties before succumbing to a breakdown that stole many years of his life from him, including whatever creativity he may have been able find during those years.
This new biopic about the Beach Boys co-founder and songwriter gives us two different slices of his life simultaneously. Director Bill Pohlad chooses to cut back and forth between Brian in 1966, when he was at his absolute creative and musical peak (during the making of Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations"), and 1983, at his lowest point post-breakdown while under the total control of Dr. Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) the power hungry psychiatrist who made himself Brian's legal guardian and micromanaged every inch of his life. Wilson is played by two different actors- Paul Dano as the young Beach Boy and John Cusack as the older, shattered version of himself. This is a technique that could easily be distracting, seeing as neither actor really resembles the other, but here it works seamlessly, as you essentially see Wilson as two different people because he really was at these points in his life. It also helps that Dano and Cusack are both wonderful in the part, giving a fully realized, detailed portrayal of Brian in each setting as we come to know him and how his mind worked.
Perhaps he benefits from the time his part takes place in (how could he not?), but Dano's young Brian Wilson at his creative peak is a true joy to watch, as we see and hear the inspiration behind so many of the classic tunes we know so well. Paul Dano can often be over the top and shrill in his performances, but somehow with this role he inhabits the softspoken, shy, yet musically inclined Wilson at a pitch perfect note. His occasional wanderings into the sounds in his head that he can't quite describe but knows how to direct are a great portrait of an artist at work in a way that few musical biopics ever show. The difference here is that Brian Wilson was never a performer but a true musician whose genius lay in the studio at a time when so many new things were being discovered. It's exciting to see him direct an orchestra to put two different bass lines together, bring dogs in for extra barking noises and casually wonder whether he can get a horse brought in too. His direction of his brothers and cousin in the making of the records leaves no doubt as to who the genius was (although I can't help but wonder how Mike Love feels about his portrayal in this film as the family member who keeps wanting to shut down Brian's inspiration while completely glossing over his own contributions as co-writer to many of the Beach Boys' biggest hits).
Dano gets the flashy era, but the 1980's Brian gets a respectful and superbly acted rendering of how he met his wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who eventually acted as his savior in freeing him from the confines of the crazed Landy. Giamatti is excellent as the control freak, but it's a performance we've seen from him before, while Banks manages to create a subtly shaded character out of Melinda, who quietly realizes what's going on with Brian and Gene, as she observes and listens to what they both say when out of earshot of the other. She then does what she can to help Brian get out of his situation while at the same time knowing all along that he can only be helped if he decides for himself that he needs to get his life back. This is a movie that will likely make you appreciate the Beach Boys in a way you never have before- their music is so ingrained in our collective culture that it's odd to think of the group behind "Surfin U.S.A." as having a true visionary at the helm all along. But less so when you really listen to the lyrics of "God Only Knows" and the arrangement of "Good Vibrations" (which the film portrays the painstaking process of), and realize how much Wilson gave to the world and how tragic his subsequent decline really was.
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