Love & Mercy: Best Rock Star Biopic Ever?

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Brian Wilson movie brilliantly portrays the essence of his life, music and soul

Love-at-Mercy Brians

Paul Dano (L) as the young Wilson; John Cusack as the older Wilson, with Elizabeth Banks

Like many of my generation, I grew up with the music of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. And followed what he created as it matured and I did too. And came to know Wilson’s tumultuous and finally triumphant life story quite well through books and magazine articles, further enhanced by the brilliant music he created over the years in which he dug emotionally affecting songs from his soul – witness Pet Sounds for instance, a timelessly satisfying Desert Island Disc if there ever was one – that have hit the deepest places in my heart and that of millions of others.

Despite the fact that I knew how Love & Mercy would end, sweet tears of joy welled up in my eyes at the end of the film’s world premiere screening at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March. Yes, the upcoming movie about Wilson (in theaters June 5, 2015) is that deeply moving. And a brilliantly executed film that I expect to remain my choice for the 2015 Best Picture Oscar even this early in the game no matter what else follows – and not just because I am a lifelong fan of Wilson’s music.

love-and-mercy-2It would take many hours to tell his story chronologically with all the fullness of Wilson’s ingenious creativity, struggles with his mental health and drugs, conflicts with his father who managed the band early on as well as his bandmates, recovery from his psychiatric afflictions to become healthy, happy and again artistically productive, and so much more. Yet director Bill Pohlad and the film’s screenwriters ingeniously use the tools of cinema to compress all that into a sumptuous two-hour feature film that hits all the essential beats of his life with a, yes, harmonious and symphonic mastery that plays over and over again in your imagination after seeing it like a treasured favorite hit song.

Love & Mercy starts with a montage of early Beach Boys music and iconic moving images that smartly summarizes their rise to stardom. Then cuts to the older Wilson, played by John Cusack, as he eccentrically shops for a new Cadillac, and despite his odd ways – and likely also due in part to that, along with his sweet nature – charms saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (a radiant Elizabeth Banks). The story of their romance provides the ideal arc to hang Wilson’s story onto.

Cusack gets the adult Wilson down cold despite having no great resemblance to him by incorporating the facial tics, hesitant speech patterns, offbeat physiological carriage and other characteristics that often mark sufferers from schizoid disorders (trust me, I know them well by spending time over the last two decades with rock music’s other legendary and now recovered schizophrenic, Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators). In what may be the tour de force performance of his already distinguished career, Cusack becomes the older Brian Wilson.

No mean feat, as he has formidable competition within the same movie from Paul Dano, who not just looks uncannily like the young Wilson but inhabits him to the point where his every moment onscreen feels like it could be documentary footage. Whether it’s romping in a pool with his fellow Beach Boys as they discuss band affairs or working in the studio with the Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew to record some of the most luscious and sophisticated pop-rock music ever on Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and the aborted Smile, there is a profound “you are there” quality to every one of his scenes that I haven’t seen in the rock movie genre since A Hard Day’s Night. And the same goes with every other scene in Love & Mercy, especially one that hauntingly resonates with me: Wilson takes Ledbetter to see the the family home of his youth in Hawthorne, a Los Angeles suburb… and it’s been paved over by a freeway (which in actual fact it was). In the same way that The Beach Boys were the musical metaphor for the Southern California of the 1960s, the moment serves as a signifier for Wilson’s release from the demons of his younger years while metaphorically updating its locale to current times.

Love & Mercy studioIt’s a somewhat unconventional and daring move to have two actors play one man, yet it never feels even a bit unlike both are the same person. Time shifts throughout the storytelling, but it all feels as seamless as a perfectly sequenced album (let me again invoke Pet Sounds). As a film, Love & Mercy never strikes a single discordant note, much like Brian Wilson’s finest recordings. Even if as with any biopic some liberties and alterations must always be taken with facts and aspects of the subject’s story to make it work as a film, this movie always looks, seems and feels like the reality of Wilson’s life (including the largely sun-splashed cinematography). Hence it reverberates with the truth, as a geniunely great movie should.

A musical genius like Wilson deserves a work of cinematic genius, and that’s what this film is. You will feel love, mercy and good vibrations and so much more from across the emotional spectrum as you watch it, which anyone who loves classic music and cinema must.

The Smile album is a pivotal event in Love & Mercy. Watch this documentary on it by David Leaf, author of The Beach Boys and The California Myth.

Rob Patterson

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