*** out of ****
While summer is the season of blockbusters, every year there are a few counter-programming treats that are slipped in between explosions (not that there’s anything wrong with explosions). Last summer, A Most Wanted Man and Calvary provided two excellent changes of pace. This year, movie buffs suffering from blockbuster fatigue should check out Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) biopic Love & Mercy.
There have been enough music biopics that savvy audiences are aware of the conventions - the adversity, the substance abuse, the troubled romantic relationships, the “a-ha” moments that trigger the creation of an iconic song. While Love & Mercy doesn’t entirely avoid all of those cliches, it mostly provides a fresh take on the genre by not attempting to cover Brian Wilson’s entire life, but by focusing on two important periods of it - the mid-60s creation of the album Pet Sounds, followed by Wilson’s (played by Paul Dano & John Cusack) subsequent decent into substance abuse and his mid-80s stint as essentially a prisoner of a manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti).
In the 60s episode, Wilson struggles with his own anxiety and a combative relationship with his abusive father and former manager (Bill Camp). Some of his bandmates want to continue churning out the same types of songs that gave them their early success, but Wilson wants to experiment. One of the best things about the Dano portion of the Wilson story is the behind the scenes look at how albums get made. In other musical biopics, the grunt work need to create great music is often jettisoned and replaced with cheap moments of the singer hearing a phrase that ends up being the title of a great song. Here, you get a sense of how time-consuming and difficult creating a great song is.
The 80s part of Wilson’s story is anchored by Cusack, who successfully conveys both a vulnerable boyishness and a sad weariness simultaneously. Wilson receives a lifeline from his overly medicated life when he meets a Cadillac saleswomen (Elizabeth Banks) who notices that his relationship with his psychiatrist is more sinister than it appears.
Fans of the Beach Boys will of course be interested in the film, but you don’t have to be enamored with the music to appreciate the movie. Other biopics should take Love & Mercy’s cue and try to find more creative ways to present their material.