Bill Pohlad's biopic of the Beach Boys mastermind is immaculate and respectful, but the arc of growth and redemption is too neat
What a shame it would have been had a biopic of Brian Wilson not been well orchestrated. Director Bill Pohlad arranges his film into two motifs that offer a warm, neat tribute to the Beach Boys mastermind. Made with Wilson's blessing, and spinning a full roster of Beach Boys hits, Love & Mercy cuts between Wilsons young and old, skipping the really ugly bits of an extraordinary life in favour of a clean arc of growth and redemption.
Paul Dano (packing on a few pounds of podge) plays Wilson in 1963. The songs in his head are coalescing into Pet Sounds. The voices in his head are only starting to get in the way. He's left the rest of the band to take their surf-rock schtick around the world. Bored of writing about "sun and summer and summer and sun", he stays in California, dabbling with LSD, coveting "ego-death", preparing an album that will change pop music forever.
Twenty years later, the balance between majesty and madness has swung against Wilson (now played by John Cusack). He's having trouble keeping his head on straight. Can't listen to Pet Sounds without feeling he's being smacked in the face. His therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), helped him to break years in isolation following the death of his abusive dad. But Landy has turned from protector to gatekeeper. He's taken the role of abusive patriarch for himself. He'll turn his fire on Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman whom Wilson met in the showroom, and who would eventually become his second wife.
Oren Moverman, Love & Mercy's screenwriter, also co-wrote Todd Haynes's multi-stranded I'm Not There, based loosely on the life of Bob Dylan. His Wilson story is less of an adventure, but it does a similarly fine job of avoiding oversimplification. Young Brian is manic and fragmented, even at his happiest. Songs float into his head uninvited. He can't stop the music, even when he wants to. He's worried that his brothers don't get him, he knows the Beatles are stealing his ideas. The pressure to make his records sound as good as he imagines them is hounding him.
Dano plays Wilson with the odd lapse into manic paranoia, but Moverman resists making the link between mental illness and creative freedom too strong. Similarly, the older Wilson isn't just a frightened drug casualty. He never loses his sense of wonder. There's a consistency between the character in the two stages of his life that smooths the jolt between the eras.
Both Dano and Cusack perform beautifully. The role suits their strengths. His shyness brings out a subtlely that Dano often lacks, while Cusack's dry charm gives the older man a sense of humour, as well as nobility. Banks and Giamatti's roles are more one-note. Landy quickly devolves into the kind of maniacal weasel we've seen Giamatti play too often. Banks is an angel of patience and understanding as Ledbetter, the only person who realises how unhealthy Landy's influence has become and the lone hero who can break Wilson free. The complexity of both characters is sacrificed, however, the grey areas of Wilson and Landy's relationship unexplored. Brian is a victim to be saved from a bad man by a good woman. It's all a bit too neat.
Wilson's life has been unusually rich. This biopic, like any biopic, is a cocktail of fact and myth. It's very sensitive to its subject, which can sometimes leave it feeling slight. There are areas of Wilson's story that are underplayed or ignored. Recreational drugs are present, but the idea of addiction, or even dependence, isn't addressed. The other Beach Boys are bit-parts in a life, which feels particularly unfair to Dennis, another complex character whose life drifted away from the fun-in-the-sun innocence of the band's early years.
There's a scene in the studio showing Wilson in his element. He wants the musicians playing in two different keys; he's happy for control room chatter to bleed onto his song. He's just recorded his dogs, Banana and Louie, singing backing vocals. His piano player hits a wrong note and Wilson loves it. The mistakes can make music perfect, he says. Love & Mercy – immaculate, respectful – doesn't follow that philosophy.