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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.