LOVE & MERCY—–behind the good vibrations that were the sunny public face of The Beach Boys throbbed the cruel migraine of psychological assault & battery that afflicted their leader and co-founder Brian Wilson. A classic case of a misunderstood genius (in this case musical), someone at once part of, apart from and ahead of his time.
Heretofore distinguished as a producer of thoughtful emotional dramas, Bill Pohlad proves sure-handed at direction with this acclaimed 2014 picture; satisfying, like Wilson’s music, on several levels. It succeeds in moving you as a sensitive examination of private trauma, in refreshing memory as an evocative period piece of recent social history and by stimulating a ponder field as a meditation on the price of success.*
The script, by Oren Moverman (doing a major overhaul of an original by Michael Alan Lerner), isn’t framed as a conventional biopic, with a straight narrative progression. Fittingly, it emulates basic song construction– verse, bridge and chorus— to work parallel stories, sections of Wilson’s life, back & forth into a seamless tonal weave, creating their own rhythm and spell. These mirror the ebb and flow of Wilson’s organic interior mental balance, with his exterior influences, positive and negative forces that warred over his welfare. Everyone hears and sees things differently; the script’s take is that the auteur Williams constructed his intricate soundwebs partially as pure musical whim and partly to deal with auditory hallucinations that increasingly besieged him, resulting in tunes that echoed the voices in his head. His pain, Music’s gain. It was the bad luck of the draw that few could follow his muse and some saw fit to jacket it. Recognition and salvation had to wait.
Casting was key, and the 121 minutes are graced with a quintet coup from four acting aces. Paul Dano plays a ringer as the younger, 60s version of Wilson, a fount of hopeful momentum and innovative inspiration. John Cusack embodies (through suggestion rather than appearance) the stress-fractured, substance-addled 80s shell. The tension-fraught creation of the 1966 “Pet Sounds” album serves as bridge between the dual/dueling Brian’s. Fighting to release or capture the mature Wilson are an entranced and sincere girlfriend, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a waking California Dream, and the darkly manipulative quack therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a walking Hotel California nightmare.
Dano and Cusack, distinctive in age (29 and 47) and look, are matched masters at subtle mannerism and quiet conveyance of harnessed energy and intelligence: the combination of their skill, Pohlad’s unobtrusively fluid direction and the scripts smart parsing and accentuation of events morphs the two actors into one Brian, albeit a Wilson split down the middle by chemistry and what may as well be demonic influence. Giamatti is the perfect choice to fuel the dark recesses: a true pop culture villain, a psychobabble parasite with a bloodlust gift for game. The cosmic cavalry arrives via an inner beauty that shines from the glowing eyes and dazzling smile of Ms. Banks, who can roll up her Cadillac and rescue me from myself any time she’s in the area (he begged, in vain).
Also hitting hard, in a smaller role, is Bill Camp, as Wilson’s truly horrid father, Murry :with a Dad like that the Pacific Ocean would indeed beckon. Marked by excellent cinematography from Robert Yeoman, adroitly scored by Atticus Ross, it is also well cast in smaller roles and the alternating 60s and 80s period looks come over convincingly yet the details don’t swamp the intimate personal focus. Arranged for a carefully alloted $10,000,000, it drew excellent reviews, but underperformed in theaters, earning a tame $28,600,000. Tons of material is available to wade into (‘surf’ seems apropos) online for the more avid Beach Boys fans, who, like any partisan group, may quibble with details left out or played up. Like most who grew up with the happy background breeze of the group, I was only partially aware of “problems” in the band, and this overdue telling renews interest and appreciation for their work, and obviously for the special circumstances of Brian Wilson. Triumph and tragedy, innocence vs. treachery, spirit plus redemption: it’s a great story.
With Jake Abel (a frayed Mike Love), Kenny Wormald, Diana Maria Riva, Brett Davern, Graham Rogers and Erin Darke.
*One overlooked part of the whole “who deserves credit and what does it mean?” thing with movies is the role of producer, which can get divvied up among “executive producers”, “co-producers”, and brethren to the point where in recent years the list of associates can read like small print on a prescription. Most people think merely of a guy with a pantload of money (and a mouthful of big cigars). Apart from the publicized power of the ubiquitous Weinsteins , or, for us fossils, legends like Samuel Goldwyn, most popcorn wolfers don’t know, understand or care about that crucial end of the storytelling process: we focus (because we’ve been told to) on directors ‘vision’ or on more easily recognizable puzzle pieces like composers (John Barry, John Williams….) because their tangible contributions we can carry around in our heads and repeat. Actors—well, that’s obvious, because they (in)directly represent us. In this instance, a look at the projects piloted shows heart behind the chutzpa. Pohlad as a producer: Brokeback Mountain, Food Inc., Into The Wild, The Runaways, Fair Game, The Tree Of Life, 12 Years A Slave, Wild, Time Out Of Mind, A Monster Calls. This guy has a gift.