Love & Mercy (2015)

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Glenn Kenny’s beautiful review of Love & Mercy expresses much of my own response to this emotional and well-done film. It’s a portrait of Brian Wilson, his genius, his struggles, his visionary capabilities, as well as his well-known suffering … and Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, at two different times of his life. The fact that those two look really nothing alike is irrelevant, because Love & Mercy is more interested in the psychology of the man than of being a straight and “respectful” biopic. It’s more innovative than the usual. Both actors are amazing, but Dano especially. Dano plays the young Brian Wilson, who has stopped touring with the Beach Boys so he can focus on writing and coming up with new stuff. The “new stuff” would end up being the phenomenal Pet Sounds, an album that was critically acclaimed but not really embraced at the time. Its stature, of course, has grown in the intervening decades and is now recognized as the visionary piece of work that it was. It’s one of my favorite albums. And then John Cusack plays Brian Wilson in the 1980s, who is a ruined man, under the legal care of “psychologist” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who has taken over every aspect of Wilson’s life. Giamatti is terrifying in the role of the abuser, the charming bullying sociopath, who has isolated Brian Wilson, keeping him separated from family, friends, all while over-medicating him and controlling what food he eats. He’s abusive. He screams in Cusack’s face. And Cusack cringes, doesn’t fight back. It was tragic.

Paul Giamatti, from left, John Cusack and Elizabeth Ledbetter in "Love & Mercy." (Francois Duhamel/Roadside Attractions/TNS)

These two times in Brian Wilson’s life are patched together, and we flow back and forth from one to the other. It’s elegantly done. Because what starts to happen is you see that Wilson, abused by his controlling father, still needed that approval. Wilson was (is) a sensitive soul. And perhaps “prey” to these stronger controlling types. Wilson is partially deaf in one ear because of a particularly hard whack from his father when he was a kid. So the creepiness of Giamatti’s performance, and the tragedy of Cusack’s terrified submission to that treatment, has its roots in childhood. That kind of abuse is familiar to Wilson, and it also feels like love to him. This is all made terrifically clear by a new woman who enters Wilson’s life at that time, a car saleswoman, who starts to date Wilson, not realizing really who he is, and what his situation is. That woman (who would end up marrying Wilson: she remains his wife today) is played by Elizabeth Banks in a terrific performance which is mainly made up of reaction shots, of shots of her looking around the messed-up controlling environment of her new boyfriend and thinking, “This feels way … way ‘off.'” Banks is beautifully open, and yet Giamatti is so terrifying that you actually wonder if she will have the mettle to withstand his abuse. He controls access to Wilson. He expects her to report to him on their dates. He is a MONSTER. (Eugene Landy lost his license because of his treatment of Wilson.)

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But what was really amazing about Love & Mercy was the completely convincing scenes showing the creation of Pet Sounds, as well as “Good Vibrations.” As Glenn notes, these types of scenes rarely work in movies. It’s hard to convince us that we are looking at a real studio session, that we are watching the real creative process. But Love & Mercy pulls it off. Dissertations have been written about Pet Sounds, and “Good Vibrations” took six months to complete. That’s how grueling the process was for one song. Brian Wilson heard it a certain way, and was tireless in trying to make what he heard inside his head a reality out in the world.

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Love & Mercy manages to capture the feeling of this real-life clip, the sense of collage, of time passing, of the hard work required to get a song right.

Also, after watching Love & Mercy, I will always have a deeper appreciation of those chopping cello sounds in “Good Vibrations”! The time it took to get that sound right. People were almost literally pulling their hair out in the booth: another take? That one sounded fine. Oh my God, let’s move ON, please.

I loved all of the other “Beach Boys.” Wonderful actors (Supernatural fans, Jake Abel plays Mike Love, and honestly looks just like him. Jake Abel is doing great in his career, appearing in cool projects, and I’m very happy about that!) Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson was perfect: so good-looking you want to kill yourself, but also with that easy humorous presence that was so much a part of him. A peacemaker. The rest of the ensemble is incredible as well. This is hard stuff to put together: help us believe that you ARE “The Beach Boys.” Not only a band, but family. I mean, right? But these guys pulled it off.

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The story is played real enough that the stakes feel extremely high. Someone’s life is at stake, someone’s soul, someone’s sense of agency is being taken away from him. Even if you know the details of the Landy/Wilson situation, the reality – as portrayed in the film – is horrifying.

On the bus ride home after the movie, I pulled up Pet Sounds on the iPod. The album never gets old. It still feels fresh, it still “pops.” There’s a tenderness in Wilson’s sound, those chord changes, those layers, that manages to be both hopeful and melancholy at the same time. One of the studio musicians hired to help create Pet Sounds takes a smoke break with Brian Wilson in the film. The guy says that they’ve worked with everybody – and when he says everybody, he means everybody. “But you? You’re …. touched, kid.”

He really was (is). His story is a moving one, and it’s beautifully told in love & Mercy. When the real Brian Wilson shows up, singing “Love & Mercy” as the credits roll, I was stuck in my seat, flattened by the emotion of it.

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19 Responses to Love & Mercy (2015)

  1. Stoked to see this (sorry) as I was on scene in the L.A. ’60s.

  2. Sheila says:

    It’s really good! Let me know what you think!

  3. Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’m gonna see it this weekend if I have to drive to Birmingham. Heck, it’s only five hours away.

    • sheila says:

      Ha! It’s not a typical biopic at all – don’t let the fact that Dano/Cusack look nothing alike, or that Cusack doesn’t look like BW at all. I think they’re up to something different here – it’s unique and strange and I really liked it (obviously).

      Let me know what you think once you’ve seen it!

  4. Desirae says:

    I want to see this one. I don’t know much about Brian Wilson, but this looks like such an interesting way to go about a biopic.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae – It really is. There are people on FB complaining that parts of it don’t get the actual story right, or Cusack doesn’t look like Wilson, or the sessions weren’t really like that according to the people who were there …

      Basically my response to that is: It’s not a documentary.

      It’s a contemplation of one man’s mind – and his suffering (mental illness? He was mis-diagnosed by the monstrous psychiatrist) – and also his music-making. It’s not linear or literal.

      Anthony Hopkins didn’t look at all like Nixon. It was a magnificent performance.

      I get so tired of rote biopics, you know? The biopics that faithfully and respectfully walk step by step through one person’s life – ironing out the complexities. They end up so boring, so safe – and also, worse – don’t illuminate at all WHY the person in question was so great.

      Love & Mercy is not literal at all.

      I knew that Brian Wilson had been somehow embroiled in a relationship with an evil psychiatrist but did not know the half of it. There are some really interesting articles out there about Landy, and the effect he had on BW (devastating). I think the film did an amazing job of showing how vulnerable some famous people are – their fame leaves them vulnerable – and swarms of bottom-feeders and predators circle around them. BW was vulnerable to someone like Landy, who took over BW’s life in something he called “24-hour therapy.” Total control over BW’s life. Giamatti really went there in his performance – extremely scary.

      Will be interested to hear what you think.

      • Desirae says:

        Okay, saw it and loved it. I could have watched about 5 hours of them in the recording studio. Most movies about music are like; band goes in, music comes out, the end. But this movie was interested in the process of creation itself. There are so many great scenes there: Brian playing “God Only Knows” for his father and getting shot down; him plucking the piano strings with bobbi pins to get the sound right; the “you’re touched, kid” scene you mention where he asks if he’s better than Phil Spektor and then covers his face with his hands. What a great gesture. Another one: when his father announces he’s sold the rights to the Beach Boys music and all he can do is turn his back. Paul Dano is fast becoming one of my favorite actors. I really liked the guy playing Dennis Wilson too – every time he has to be in a room with his father complete disgust would roll across his face. It happens quickly because he isn’t the focus but it’s subtle and well done.

        And how often do you see studio musicians being given their due? Those people are absolute champs.

        It also doesn’t conflate madness with genius which is such a rookie mistake, yet so common. Screenwriting tends to be really really lazy where mental illness is concerned. The simple way they used sound to create those terrifying auditory hallucinations was brilliant. Isn’t it weird how few movies – especially those about music – know how to use sound effectively?

        The relationship with the psychiatrist reminded me of Cornelia Wilbur and Shirley Mason in a BIG way. Wilbur wasn’t as much of a bully, I don’t believe, but in her own way she was just as monstrous. Both of them took a vulnerable person and exploited their illness for their own goals. Just totally overwhelmed the patient with their own force of personality and the guise of helping. Wilbur also had Mason move in with her, btw. And both of them proclaimed their most famous patient a victory while just making them sicker.

        Last point: Elizabeth Banks’ wardrobe was perfect. Great, great costuming.

        The whole audience stayed through Wilson singing “Love and Mercy” over the credits when I saw it. It would have felt disrespectful to leave.

        • Desirae says:

          Oh, and you were right that it doesn’t really matter that Dano and Cusack don’t look alike. I’m not sure physical resemblance is ever all that important – getting the essence of the person right is. My fav biopic is “I’m Not There”, the movie about Bob Dylan in which nobody looks like Bob Dylan and nobody is named Bob Dylan.

          • sheila says:

            Loved “I’m Not There.”

            I would rather have a biopic that is interested in psychology/creativity than just a rote recital of “this is what happened and then this happened” – like Ali, for example. I love Muhammad Ali and that movie was a letdown for me – because the thing about Ali that was unique, that made him HIM – was somehow left out of the picture. We just got a series of events piling up. Beautifully filmed and acted, but still … it was lacking.

        • sheila says:

          Desirae – so excited you saw it. Love your comments!

          // I really liked the guy playing Dennis Wilson too – every time he has to be in a room with his father complete disgust would roll across his face. It happens quickly because he isn’t the focus but it’s subtle and well done. //

          Yes!! He comes off as such a nice guy, easy-going, but tough too. He really looks like the real DW too.

          // And how often do you see studio musicians being given their due? Those people are absolute champs. //

          I know!! I absolutely loved that aspect of it. And how the Beach Boys (the other guys) felt pushed out of their own band somehow – like: who are all these cello players?

          // It also doesn’t conflate madness with genius which is such a rookie mistake, yet so common. Screenwriting tends to be really really lazy where mental illness is concerned. The simple way they used sound to create those terrifying auditory hallucinations was brilliant. //

          I so agree. I thought it was so well done – sensitive and also somewhat mysterious. Did the psychedelic drugs launch some kind of auditory issue? Or was it there before? It was both benign and malevolent – and of course used by the psychiatrist to keep BW under control and over-medicated. But it was part of his unique way of “hearing” things – he heard the complete songs in his head, and he had to help others to make that sound a reality.

          // And both of them proclaimed their most famous patient a victory while just making them sicker. //

          Just so sinister. I don’t know the story of Cornelia Wilbur and Shirley Mason – I will Google it.

          and yes – Elizabeth Banks’ costumes. They really went for that late-disco the 80s-starting-to-happen vibe – and it was subtle enough that they didn’t feel like “costumes” – but just a woman who dressed to the nines every day because her job required it. I thought she looked amazing.

          • Desirae says:

            Sheila, if you haven’t read “Sybil Exposed” I strongly, strongly recommend it – it looks like it’s available on Amazon for reasonable prices. I lent my copy to someone, otherwise I would pull some quotes for you. It made me very angry for poor Shirley Mason.

            There’s an article on it here:

            http://www.salon.com/2011/10/16/sybil_exposed_memory_lies_and_therapy/

          • sheila says:

            Oh! Sybil!! Sorry – I did not even recognize the real names. Doh! I have heard much about the real situation – and people have told me about this before (I just forgot) but I will definitely read Sybil Exposed.

            So disturbing!!

  5. Saw it twice. Too personal. Had to write about it at length…Hope I somehow did it justice.

    http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=5336

    Also found a long, fascinating interview with Carl Wilson, in which, among other things he talks about Elvis…

    http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=5324

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