If you know nothing about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, I suggest that you swot up before watching Love & Mercy. Cuz it will get bewildering. Or maybe that’s the point of it all!
This biopic of Wilson elects to focus on two very specific periods in the singer-songwriter’s life. First, from about 1964 – 1967, where Wilson had suffered an anxiety attack and ‘retired’ from live performances to concentrate on recording and producing resulting in the masterpiece Pet Sounds LP and the failed attempt to delivered the radical Smile album (whereupon Wilson basically withdrew from the world). Second, in the 80s regarding his guardianship under dubiously abusive therapist Eugene Landy and his budding romance with Melinda Ledbetter (whom he would later marry).
Apart from the fact that the plot narrative jumps between these two time periods, what makes the process even more jarring is that director Bill Pohlad cast two different actors in the lead role, with Paul Dano as Wilson of the past and John Cusack as Wilson of the ‘future’ (that’s what it states in the credits). Again, this strange decision could have been part of the creative process and to demonstrate that Wilson was actually two different persons in the 60s and the 80s. So is this a concrete illustration of paranoid schizophrenia which many claim Wilson suffered from? Perhaps.
However, the problem is that while the 60s sequence is compelling and emotional, the 80s narrative is ordinary and somewhat boring. Paul Dano does a superb acting job as the young Wilson, channeling Wilson’s child-like genius perfectly. As for Cusack, the less said the better. Elizabeth Banks (as Ledbetter) is compassionate and concerned but the storytelling is staid and leaden despite Paul Giamatti’s best attempts to ham it up as Landy. Another contrast is that while the 60s Wilson is full of music making, his 80s counterpart is bereft of music, except one little scene where Wilson plays the chord progression of “Love & Mercy” to Ledbetter.
Credit to Pohlad for re-creating the studio recordings of the Pet Sounds and Smile material faithfully – scenes that will bring tears to the eyes of diehard Beach Boys fans. These sequences are so lovingly re-produced with an attention to detail that is mesmerising. One memorable scene has Wilson and band in fireman hats as he records the harrowing “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow” (see above) which he famously abandoned as he believed the music actually started real fires (why that is not in the movie is mystifying). The 60s portions are worth the price of admission.
On a personal note – one scene that really broke my heart was the one where Wilson is in the studio running his fingers through the reels of the Smile sessions, while his band (led by that douchebag Mike Love) puts together the inferior Smiley Smile and his father informs Wilson that he has sold the publishing rights to the Beach Boys music to A&M. At that moment, the spark that was Brian Wilson’s genius was effectively snuffed out.
Yes, the 80s sequence is necessary to demonstrate that Wilson’s story has a happy ending but one cannot escape the tragedy of ‘what might have been’ and that for me is the message behind Love & Mercy.
Love & Mercy is showing in Singapore cinemas now.