Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Johnny Sneed and Bill Camp.
Writers: Michael A Lerner and Oren Moverman.
Director: Bill Pohlad.
Watch the trailer here.
For 2015 Sydney Film Festival screening information, click here.
The ‘musical biopic’ often adheres to a narrative that captures the subject’s life like a Wikipedia page. This approach is actor-bait; it allows for moments of life-defining drama from which a committed thespian can milk grand emotions. It is why everyone remembers Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline or Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis, but also why no one remembers much else about Ray or Sweet Dreams or Great Balls of Fire.
Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s refreshingly daring take on the life of Brian Wilson, transcends the biopic conventions. Finding kindred spirits in scripters Michael A Lerner and Oren Moverman, the director never settles for a ‘crib note’ version of the life of the Beach Boys creative centre. Pohlad captures the vibrancy of Wilson’s artistic peak, that early 60’s period of musical production that led to the Pet Sounds album, as well as his highly publicised and crippling mental health issues in the 1980s. Intercutting between decades, the film (named after Wilson’s 1988 comeback single) evokes the elusive brilliance that defined young Brian’s extraordinary songwriting talents as much as his descent into depression, and his re-emergence from a prescription drug-addled haze as middle age approaches.
The band’s rise to super-stardom has levelled out by the end of an exhilarating opening credits montage. As the brothers and bandmates jet-off to Japan, young Brian sets about constructing what would become the definitive record of the ‘California Sound’ era. Baulked up to play Wilson at a time when his weight gain signalled the early stages of dependency behaviour, an enigmatic Paul Dano pulses with the manic energy of a musical genius in the thrall of his talent. The young actor has already established an impressive resume (There Will Be Blood; Little Miss Sunshine; Ruby Sparks; Meek’s Cutoff), yet every new performance feels revelatory; Love & Mercy is his most warmly engaging work to date.
The ‘modern day’ Brian is introduced distractedly buying a new car, suggesting his life is now one of dull modern routine and scant creativity. But this low-key set-up develops into a beautifully realised ‘meet-cute’ between John Cusack’s gentle, over-medicated Wilson and Elizabeth Banks’ tarnished angel, Melinda Ledbetter. As the woman that would wrestle Wilson from the grasp of enabling drug-doctor, Eugene Landy (a full-tilt Paul Giamatti), Banks is the best she has ever been. Alongside Cusack, contributing his most nuanced and incisive character work in years, the actress brings a warmth and strength only hinted at previously.
The ‘two Brians’ plot device culminates in a fitting sequence for a story that combines the trippy SoCal surf-&-drug culture of the Sixties with the navel-gazing self-help LA mantra of the Eighties. Pohlad stages Wilson’s moment of inward realisation with Kubrick-ian clarity, particularly striking given the otherwise sunny, naturalistic ambience of DOP Robert D. Yeoman’s camera. Like the blackness of acute depression itself, the manifestation of which left Wilson infamously bedridden for years, the denouement creeps up on the film before fully enveloping it in its entirety.
With only one directing credit to his name (the little-seen 1990 drama, Old Explorers), Pohlad’s industry credibility stems from his producer credits; his directorial eye has been honed in the presence of Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), Doug Liman (Fair Game, 2010), Terence Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013). His recent collaboration with Jean-Marc Vallee on the Reese Witherspoon true-life drama, Wild (2014), imbues his storytelling here. These films alternate seamlessly between recollections filled with both promise and regret and a present day journey filled with hope.
As Wilson’s dense instrumental experimentation consumes studio time, an increasingly frustrated Mike Love (Jake Abel) barks, “You’re not Mozart, man!” Yet, in ‘musical biopic’ terms, it is Milos Forman’s Amadeus that Love & Mercy most closely resembles. Like Mozart, Brian Wilson is portrayed as both driven and doomed by a talent that was all consuming, saved time and again from the brink of self-destruction by the unwavering commitment of his soul mate pairing. All the while, he created music that defined an era and changed lives. In succinct and sublime tones, Love & Mercy convinces that God only knows where American music would be without Brian Wilson.