With Paul Dano and John Cusack embodying the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is a triumph of performance and the creative force.
The Agony and the Ecstasyby Mark Wilshin
Longtime producer of independent hits such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, Bill Pohlad returns to directing with Love & Mercy – the bipolar story of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. And it’s a welcome break from the vapid visuals and hackneyed plots of the summer cinema silly season, as Love & Mercy focuses squarely on performance with John Cusack and Paul Dano delivering career-bests as the spirit of Brian Wilson past and further past. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are also outstanding, creating of Love & Mercy a mephistophelean battle for the musician’s soul.
It’s the 1980s and Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is a saleswoman in a car showroom. But her peaceful existence is shattered one day when Brian Wilson (John Cusack) walks in, testing the Cadillacs barefoot while he’s anxiously corralled and cajoled by his 24-hour therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). It’s nevertheless the start of a beautiful relationship that sees Melinda confront Landy, who’s keeping Brian under lock and key, drugged-up on pills following several nervous breakdowns, while isolating him from family and friends and siphoning off money from his estate. Brian’s addled mental state is the result of addiction, revealed in flashback as his younger self (Paul Dano) transitions from Beach Boy to musical genius, desperately searching for his musical masterpiece while dealing with the emotional abuse at the hands of his constantly disappointed father.
More than just a biopic, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is a hymn to the creative process, entering the story of Brian Wilson after the Beach Boys’ first commercial successes, as the singer songwriter whiles away the hours at the piano, searching for a new sound. And fascinatingly, Love & Mercy even succeeds in conjuring up the indescribable nature of musical genius, as fragments of melodies and harmonies haunt Wilson’s every move. But it’s a curse as well as a gift, as Wilson becomes terrorised by his sensitivity to noise. But it’s also a celebration of creative genius, as Love & Mercy dedicates protracted scenes to studio recording sessions and the joy of making music. A creative inspiration and collaboration that perhaps recalls Pohlad’s own experiences of filmmaking on set and in the cutting room.
Of course, it’s a process that’s not without its victims – and through both Dano and Cusack’s performances, we’re offered a glimpse of the troubled musician who suffers for his art. Paul Dano masters Brian Wilson’s creative genius and growing anxieties, while Cusack is outstanding as the charismatic mess of half-cocked thoughts and anxious mumblings. And while Pohlad’s style is matter-of-fact, there are also some breathtaking moments in Love & Mercy, such as the scene in which Wilson takes LSD for the first time, the camera swooping with majestic release. Or the montage of a catatonic, bedridden Wilson that sees the convalescent in identity crisis, as all three versions of Brian are intercut, simultaneously a small boy, creative genius and recovering addict.
Above all though, Love & Mercy is a welcome homage to an undervalued composer, revealing the pressures and over-sensitive creative soul that led to multiple nervous breakdowns, addiction and abuse. And Bill Pohlad’s film doesn’t just dwell on those years in the wasteland following commercial and critical success, but mercifully finds love too as Melinda refuses to release her fledgling romance. Free from over-elaborate sets, costumes or editing techniques, Love & Mercy is a celebration of unadulterated performance – not only from Dano and Cusack, but also from Wilson and the Beach Boys’ Californian sound. West coast or east, it’s a tribute to the universal artist and to troubled geniuses everywhere.
Love & Mercy is released on 10th July 2015 in the UK