Over the years, the biopic has been to cinema what a delinquent cousin is to an honest hardworking family. The common birth-to-death narrative is often tedious, most of the time unnecessary, and almost always contrary to the film’s original intentions of creating a personal biography, instead creating a kind of fake brand of cinema. The biopic has become an impersonal genre. Love & Mercy, a new biopic on Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, conjures questions before a first viewing of whether we need a movie on Wilson; we already have his music to delve into the different strands of his personality, isn’t that enough? But just one scene in to and all doubts are quashed as we realise that this particular biopic is completely necessary, utterly intimate, and never tedious. It is a film that can turn Beach Boys haters into Beach Boys admirers, and Beach Boys admirers into Beach Boys lovers. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate the genius of Brian Wilson after watching a film that pays tribute to both the man’s talents, and recovery from his many psychological downfalls.
The film focuses specifically on two periods in Wilson’s life; the 60’s, where Paul Dano plays the creatively driven Wilson eager to take the band in a new direction with trippy spiritual lyrics and peculiar instrumental combinations; and the 80’s, where John Cusack plays the Wilson supposedly suffering from schizophrenic paranoia, that is according to his personal ‘doctor’ and legal guardian Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who fights to keep Wilson under his thumb and away from his new love interest Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The film transitions smoothly from one narrative to another thanks to some nice visuals from director Bill Pohland, cutting from Dano in a white bed to Cusack in a white bed, from Dano’s girlfriends’ black flowery dress to Banks’ in a similar patterned outfit. By stripping Wilson’s life into these two key periods, Pohlad manages to create an intimacy that is not voyeuristic but simply intimate. At times we ourselves feel like the extra Beach Boy member that nobody talks about, along on the ride with Wilson, observing his life lovingly from over his shoulder or occasionally from inside his own head (by ignoring the usual stipulations of the biopic, Francois Truffaut created a similar kind of intimacy in his biography of Adele Hugo in The Story of Adele H). There is such a sense of intimacy with Wilson that some of the other brothers in the band simply feel like extras whose only purpose is to stand in the back of the shot with their shirts off looking pretty.
The three leads; Dano, Cusack, and Banks, don’t miss a beat in the entire picture. It is an actor’s film if there ever was one. Cusack is both tender and open, managing to combine his own ticks with Wilson’s idiosyncrasies, to not only bring Wilson’s spirit to the surface but his own as well. As ever with Paul Dano, he throws himself into the deep end, but this time he surfs the waves of his character brilliantly in a career best performance. Talking of career best performances, Elizabeth Banks is a revelation as Melinda, a subtle and mature performance where she manages to communicate with a glance, a look, and the emotions within her eyes.
Love & Mercy is a new kind of biopic but not a radical one. It’s a film that avoids clichés altogether rather than transcending them. There’s a stark simplicity to the film that is nothing but effective throughout; for instance, we’re meant to feel nothing but contempt for Giamatti’s Landy and we do; we’re meant to feel annoyance at Jack Abel’s Mike Love for his reluctance to take the band in a new direction and we do; we’re meant to feel sympathy for Wilson’s housemaid Gloria (Diana Maria Riva) and we feel nothing but; in these instances the film is both effective but also somewhat limited. What the film does excellently though is depict 60’s Wilson’s streaks of creative genius, especially in regards to the creation of the band’s legendary Pet Sounds. With the various recording studio sequences, in essence, we get to see how the meat is made, but we’re never appalled, only awed.
Partly scripted by Oren Moverman, the film has drawn comparisons to another of Moverman’s scripted films, such as Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There; but whereas Haynes was never fully in control of his biopic, Pohlad is with Love & Mercy (due to the film’s intimacy, Pohlad’s film is more similar to another Moverman scripted film; The Messenger). The film can also draw comparisons to a Douglas Sirk melodrama, as Pohlad goes full out on every aspect of the film’s plot and themes; when there’s love, there’s love with a capital L, when there’s anger, there’s Anger, when there’s madness, there’s Madness. As Pohlad’s directorial career is still very much in its infancy, it’s hard to detect any authorial and personal traits to the film (if he has any at all), we just have to wait and see, but on the evidence of Love & Mercy, it better not be a long wait.
(Movie still: Francois Duhamel/Roadside)