Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

Love & Mercy


The fidelity that musical biopics tend to have towards the chronology of public record – especially when the subject or their families are still alive, and liable to kick up a fuss over films playing fast and loose with their story – makes it difficult to know what parts to keep and what do ditch. Live fast, die young stories are good because you can fit everything in to a tight arc of glamourous decline. Complex, sprawling careers are more challenging, but can be can be reduced to a single period for convenience. Others take a more experimental approach, like Todd Haynes’ impressionistic, multi-cast Dylan-inspired I’m Not There.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohland’s twin-track portrait of Brian Wilson, the creative vision behind The Beach Boys credited with pioneering the California Sound of the 70s, offers a novel approach, tells two stories from two different periods of intense transition in Wilson’s life: into madness, and out of it. Paul Dano, with his mop cut and sprouting belly, is the young Wilson at the cusp of stardom, breaking out of trademark sun and surf vibes for new, richer sonic and psychotropic territories. John Cusack is Wilson the rich, bloated, hazel-eyed recluse, under the firm grip of his Svenglai-like psychologist and guardian Gene (Paul Giamatti).

Dano’s Wilson feels the rush and burden of inspiration, spurred on by the voices and music behind his eyes. After a short opening scene of vulnerable Wilson sitting at the piano wondering what will happen if his inner voice ever departs him, the film goes to black and sits on it, filling the black with a rush of noise and sun-kissed harmonies, building to a claustrophobic but super-charged cacophony. Playing an early piano version of ‘God Only Knows’ for his father, a domineering paternal presence, Wilson tells him to close his eyes and ‘see’ the song. But only Wilson has the gifts of sight. The scenes of Wilson in the studio, preparing and arranging the sounds of future-classic Pop Sounds, are great combinations of manic personal vision and studious musical craftmanship, paying attention to process in a way usually skipped over in the middle sections of musical biopics.

The later period story can’t help but suffer in comparison with the earlier stuff. Dano’s Wilson is bristling with energy, forging new musical paths and whipping his studio collaborators into a frenzy, but Cusack’s Wilson is doughy and docile, heavy on drugs and melancholy. He’s hemmed in to the bubble of Gene and his entourage, until he meets car saleswoman and future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Wilson). It is like watching two different films cut up together, but not always in a bad way. The jarring back and forth between tones and styles isn’t totally dissimilar to Wilson’s enthusiasm for building tunes through layered harmonies, the parallel lines communicating in sing-song. ‘These things I’ll be until I die’ Wilson sang on ‘Till I Die’, and the two stories provide lines of continuity, the fragile Wilson under siege from the loud world and its imposing voices of male authority, but the film also arcs towards an earned and heartfelt sense of release, an assurance that amongst the continuity there is also the possibility of something sunnier on the other side. Conor Smyth


Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.