Most musical bios tend to follow such a formulaic path they are almost like online résumé templates. All a director has to do is fill in the chronological life moments and hit send.
But director Bill Pohlad’s decidedly unconventional Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, which takes its title from an overlooked 1988 solo single from the Beach Boys’ co-founder, is the Pet Sounds of biopics.
Pohlad tells a story that has been told before — much like Wilson did with the popular three-minute pop songs on that landmark and influential 1966 Beach Boys record — but the execution is unexpected, fresh, challenging and grandly entertaining.
It’s disturbing and provocative, too. Wilson’s troubled life — (Beach) boy genius, broken man — almost demands an unusual structure. So Pohlad, working from a script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, focuses on two time periods: the mid-1960s, when Wilson, working alongside and apart from the touring family act the Beach Boys, constructs the group’s masterwork with session pros known as the Wrecking Crew, and the mid-1980s, when Wilson meets Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (a pitch-perfect Elizabeth Banks), who would become his second wife and catalyst for salvation.
Near-seamless editing by Dino Jonsäter toggles back and forth between the periods, and two actors working at the top of their talents portray Wilson at each stage. Paul Dano plays the wide-eyed musical savant who at 22 has a nervous breakdown on a plane during a tour. He retires from the road to write, record and produce tracks for the other Beach Boys, essentially using the claustrophobic studio as its own lead instrument, a bold move that would immediately inspire friendly rivals the Beatles.
John Cusack plays the dazed ’80s Wilson, decades into drug addiction, mental illness and under the omnipresent domination of psychotherapist Eugene Landy. The actor pulls off the same feat Anthony Hopkins managed 20 years ago in the title role of Oliver Stone’s Nixon: He transcends a lack of physical resemblance to capture the essence and empathy of a human being. Mere moments after his entrance into the film, any doubts evaporate. As Landy, who infiltrated every aspect of Wilson’s life, Paul Giamatti is so good as a smarmy villain that you’ll want to throttle him.
Love & Mercy is never more exhilarating than when it shows how a master musician creates. Dano, playing the wunderkind terrorized by his abusive father (Bill Camp) in the studio, corrals a host of sounds, surreal and natural, from L.A.’s finest musicians. When ace drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) pulls him aside and praises him by saying, “Phil Spector’s got nothin’ on you,” the act of kindness carries the importance of a life raft after the boat has taken on a torpedo.
Adding to the film’s enveloping aural collage is the score by composer Atticus Ross (Gone Girl), which incorportates Wilson’s melodies, creating a sensory experience that puts you inside the songwriter’s head. Love & Mercy allows you to understand how the lifelong auditory hallucination that haunted Wilson also fueled his creativity. Sometimes, from madness, great art can emerge.
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald.
Director: Bill Pohlad
Screenwriters: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway.