Friday, October 20, 2017

Love & Mercy (2014)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner, Brian Wilson
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Beach Boys, Atticus Ross
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Erin Darke, Joanna Going, Brett Davern, Max Schneider, Hal Blaine

Though director Bill Pohlad owns many impressive credits as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave, just to start), Love & Mercy is only his second film as a director and his first in nearly 25 years. This shows in both good and bad ways: he's bold or naive enough to try the dual casting—Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively, play Brian Wilson as a young man and as a middle-aged man—but in many ways the picture proceeds with easy TV rhythms and obvious conflicts that are often reminiscent of Lifetime movies. I enjoy Lifetime movies, but a little can go a long way and it's hard to miss how predictably they move and develop.

What sets Love & Mercy off as something more special, transcending the TV movie feel and the inherent problems of a biopic, are the studio scenes where Brian Wilson is shown inventing in real time some of the greatest pop music ever made. The best of these scenes, which are all too brief, are even better than similar scenes in Grace of My Heart (another movie about Brian Wilson but in a more fanciful context). The mid-'60s were an impossibly exciting time in pop music, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are not the only artists around which a movie like this could be built. Similar movies could—and should—be made about similar studio-bound adventures by the Beatles, Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Frank Zappa, Shadow Morton, and many others. For now, Love & Mercy might be the best we have, for all its weaknesses and shortcomings.

Its treatment of "Good Vibrations," for example, distills the creative process down to the building blocks. It starts with a barely recognizable set of chords that Brian (Paul Dano) is shown pounding on the piano. Later, playing the fragments for Mike Love (Jake Abel), the chords and the way he plays them are more recognizable. In montage sequence the song is constructed, the melody introduced, again by fragments, and then the various studio elements: the harmonies, the arrangements, that wonderful theremin, each coming in by pieces. It's tremendously exciting. Earlier scenes chase down the development in similar fashion of key songs from Pet Sounds. These scenes are the best part of the movie and worth seeing it for alone.

As for the rest, it probably depends on how you feel about the Beach Boys and biopics, in approximately that order. The story is rote legend. You might know the shape of it even if you're not a Beach Boys follower: the amazing early success, the Wilsons' abusive father and manager, Brian's shift from performing to introverted studio wonkery ("In My Room"), the abuse of hallucinogens and other drugs, group conflicts, the commercial failure of Pet Sounds, and, eventually (as John Cusack steps in to replace Dano), Brian's falling under the sway of psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, with splinters of the scenery wounding his mouth). Eventually the love of a good woman—Cadillac dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks)—becomes the light at the end of his tunnel. Brian Wilson is freed of Landy's influence in 1992, marries Ledbetter in 1995, and happily ever after immediately follows (over the years, five children and completion of the Smile project, plus touring, renewed acclaim, and mental health).

Because it's so familiar, the actual drama of Love & Mercy is not necessarily preserved even if all those signifying pieces we know are faithfully (more or less) assembled. It's hard to tell. Certainly the Landy and Ledbetter stories are much overdone and take up too much of the time. Still, as a Beach Boys fan, I was happy enough to indulge my petty hatreds of Landy and swooning appreciation for Ledbetter's role in restoring Brian to himself. It's a simple tale of plainly drawn heroics and villainy—again, the Lifetime parallels are clear—but if you appreciate the story you're probably already halfway onboard. If you don't, this movie won't convince you of anything except perhaps Brian's extraordinary creative prowess in the studio.

Much of the talk around Love & Mercy when it was released kept coming back to the casting, often complaining about even the strategy of using the two players, and then about things like how Cusack and Dano don't look very much like one another, let alone Brian Wilson. I admit that's a bit of a distraction, most of it for me focused on Cusack. It's hard to see how you get from Dano to Cusack in terms of physical development. On the other hand, Dano is almost perfect as the brilliant, possessed, and tormented Brian at the peak of his powers. He has seemingly every bit of his awkwardness figured out, down to the way he walked and wore his clothes—his awkwardness, but also his driven musical intelligence in the rages of creation. I can't say enough about how moved and shaken up those studio scenes make me. They're staged, of course, but I still feel privileged to witness them.

And I love the story, I'll admit that too. Since the late '90s, when his mother Audree and then his younger brother Carl died, leaving Brian as the last Wilson standing, I have been impressed with his strength and resilience. For many years he seemed like the weakest of all the Wilsons, the tormented genius of the family locked in an attic. But he's the one who literally survived all of them. In an obscure Chills song that I happen to love to death, "Song for Randy Newman, Etc.," songwriter Martin Phillips namechecks his idols—"Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake," reserving title honors for Newman. There's a lot of death and madness in that small group, but of them all, no one has transcended his setbacks and come further than Brian Wilson. He never came close again to the musical heights he reached in the '60s, but he did find happiness, and that's nothing to kick at. Here's that story. Show up with hankies.

Top 10 of 2014
1. Selma
2. Boyhood
3. Love & Mercy
4. Force Majeure
5. John Wick
6. The Babadook
7. The Raid 2
8. Citizenfour
9. Noah
10. Clouds of Sils Maria

1 comment:

  1. Yay for Love & Mercy. That I've seen six of your top ten movies from 2014 makes me feel almost up w/ the times. Almost. Thanks.