“Love & Mercy” is a compelling cinematic journey and exploration of the triumph and tragedy of a musical genius that mirrors Brian Wilson’s own musical journey and life. Not your typical biopic, “Love & Mercy” is the story of Brian Wilson – from his early days as a Beach Boy to the infamous recording sessions of what has been described as the greatest musical album ever written – “Pet Sounds” – to the torment of his adult life thanks to mental distress and Dr. Eugene Landy to the start of a new chapter with the woman who would become an angel on his shoulder. The musical journey makes your heart soar as we celebrate Wilson’s musical genius, while the performances are so emotional, so intense, as to break the heart and then pick up the pieces with the ebullience of the music and Wilson’s soul. You cannot look away from the screen.
In a dual performance as Brian Wilson, Paul Dano and John Cusack deliver some of the finest – if not THE finest – performances of their careers as we watch Dano make the journey of Wilson’s descent into the madness of his genius while Cusack takes us into the deepest bowels of Wilson’s torment and hell, only to ascend to, and find, Wilson’s own inner joy which he had so freely given the world through his music. Paul Dano with just packing on a few pounds and a 60’s Beach Boy surfer mop top cut is the physical mirror image of Wilson during the era. Although Cusack doesn’t bear the striking resemblance that Dano does, he is the perfect man to capture the inner essence, darkness and innocence, that plagued Wilson in his later years. Cusack is nothing short of emotionally brilliant.
Lip synching by all of the actors to beloved musical tracks is terrific but then Paul Dano bravely sings some numbers himself – and does so wonderfully, with emotional poignancy to mirror not only the temporal point of song construction in the musical timeline, but the emotional fracturing points in Wilson’s life. You hear vocal breaks and cracks that mimic Wilson’s mindset of the moment. It is poignant, heartbreaking and frightening all at the same time.
Elizabeth Banks is pure innocence and heart, and the heart of the film, as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who would eventually become Wilson’s savior and second wife. Standout is Diana Riva who, as Gloria, a housekeeper for Wilson during the period he was under the control of Eugene Landy, conveys a fear and concern for Wilson that is beyond palpable, adding true gravitas. Jake Abel delivers a spot on Mike Love while Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson is a standout. Wormald also did some of the choreography for the “vintage” musical sessions and routines!
But then there’s Paul Giamatti. As Eugene Landy, this could prove to be the performance of Giamatti’s career as well. Someone needs to start the Oscar campaign for him as Best Supporting Actor now. For those that don’t know or weren’t aware of the legal wranglings in the 90’s involving Landy, he had taken control of Brian Wilson and his life under the guise of Wilson needing medical and psychiatric treatment, with Landy putting himself in place as manager and conservator, all of which only served to propel Wilson ever further to the depths of despair, paranoia and madness. It was thanks to Ledbetter that Wilson’s family became aware of the situation and wheels started turning to really get Brian Wilson back on track. What many won’t realize is that the insanity and horrific behavior we see Giamatti emote on screen is taken right from Landy’s own playbook. (Just before shooting, screenwriter Oren Moverman was “gifted” hours of audio interviews between Landy and a reporter that were long thought lost to time. Because of these recordings, much of the script involving Landy was rewritten incorporating actual statements made by Landy himself. Adding to Giamatti’s intensity was his listening to the tapes and hearing the rage in Landy’s voice – all of which made it on screen.) Giamatti oozes the oily slickness of the demented manipulator that Landy proved to be. So potent is the performance that you want to reach into the screen and grab Cusack’s Wilson, and just pull him out of the screen and save him. Your heart bleeds and breaks for Wilson thanks to director Bill Pohlad’s cinematic construct and Giamatti’s performance. Every moment Giamatti and Cusack are onscreen together, one clenches their fists a little tighter, hoping beyond hope for an angel to come and save Brian Wilson from the Satan who is Eugene Landy. It doesn’t matter that the audience knows the ultimate outcome, so engrossing and captivating is the story and the performances that one is drawn into the moment. Of course that angel does come – in the form of Banks’ Melinda.
Let me just say now, APPLAUSE APPLAUSE to Pohlad and Moverman for highlighting “The Wrecking Crew” – especially Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye! TWC was key to the music of the 60’s and 70’s and instrumental to the sound of not only The Beach Boys, but in the creation of Wilson’s “Pet Sounds”. The actors assuming the identities of TWC are so perfectly cast, right down to how each holds and plays musical instruments, it is like looking into a crystal ball, right down to drummer Hal Blaine’s ID bracelet – which he still wears to this day. Kudos to Johnny Sneed and Teresa Cowles for their work in particular as Blaine and Kaye.
Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is rich, vibrant and saturated, celebrating the highs of The Beach Boys and Wilson, then contrasted with the lows, with lighting and lensing becoming almost claustrophobic to the point that we, as an audience, feel Wilson’s anguish and pain. Standout is a recording studio sequence with only Wilson and a piano in the room as the camera spins 360 degrees in an emotional frenzy. The genius of director Bill Pohlad lies in the film’s overall construct and design – perfectly pacing the non-linear scripting of Oren Moverman – and then punctuating it with music and the PHENOMENAL period perfect vintage recreations of actual Beach Boys recording sessions and videos of the day thanks to collaboration with Atticus Ross. These images, this music, was all part of the soundtrack and video track of many of our lives in the 60’s and 70’s and beyond. To have seen it all unfold in the day and now to see it unfold yet again with the perfection of visuals plus the emotional highs and pure joy and fun the music delivered is guaranteed to bring a happy tear and a “smile.”
Notable is the costume design. From the identifiable flannel shirts, white poplin pants and popsicle striped shirts worn by the Beach Boys at the height of their fame in the 60’s to Elizabeth Banks initially clad in bright saturated ocean blue but then morphing both Melinda’s clothing and her home into angelic and cloud wafting whites, costuming is period perfect. Similarly, Keith Cunningham’s production design with the design of Wilson’s oceanfront “cottage” all done in white with wide view windows – very metaphoric as the innocence of Wilson and the idea of being trapped within himself, always looking out. The meticulous attention to detail right down to recreation of recording sessions and home decor, lends a spectacular level of authenticity to the production.
I’m picking up nothing but good vibrations and excitation for “Love & Mercy”.
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Written by Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner, Brian Wilson
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
“Love & Mercy” opens in limited release June 5, 2015, expanding wider in coming weeks.