John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
The “California Sound” – when you think of it, you hear something unique, something instigated by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Wilson revolutionized pop music and recording. This biopic about his life revolutionizes nothing. It’s only a passable presentation for people who know little to nothing of their history.
As a structure, it presents two films – with two very different actors – both tales are abridged and emotionally unfulfilling. Love and Mercy always displays more mood than plot. When some of this flick works, it’s actually a bit of a surprise.
Dano portrays the younger Wilson, after his first successes, driven to experiment and invent Pet Sounds. Wilson was just starting to show signs of depression and paranoia, and it hurt him that people questioned his artistic vision. The drugs didn’t help, either.
Cusack’s portrayal of Wilson – some twenty years later – has him moored under a dictatorial doctor’s care. Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti) drugged the musician up and controlled every aspect of Wilson’s life. It’s amazing that Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) saw a spark of who Wilson could be. She started a relationship with him despite all the barriers.
Cusack and Dano are some weird casting choices as Brian Wilson at different times. It’s not that their acting is bad, per se, but they don’t feel like the same person. First of all, the manifestations of Wilson’s mental issues take different forms – Dano spacy and unreachable, Cusack jerky and paranoid. Secondly, the two actors look nothing like each other; Dano is five inches shorter. Dano also doesn’t at all resemble Wilson. Cusack is only marginally closer.
Truth be told, for a few years as a child, I was obsessed with my stepmother’s old Beach Boys albums. When Rolling Stone covered Wilson’s struggle with mental illness and legal wrangling with Dr. Landy, I read everything… this may mean I know too much to enjoy this chopped up version of the truth.
The one really great choice Love and Mercy makes is its use of sound. Wilson piled on strange noises, odd keys and shifts, and beautiful harmonies in multi-track recordings. His experimentation influenced hard rock, disco, synthesizer sequencing, and modern movements in classical music.
To show this, Love and Mercy explores the full range of sounds, even often drifting into cacophony. Dano tinkers with cellos and pianos, refining their tones. A good minute and a half at the beginning is just layers of noise played in darkness, setting the audience to really listen to the rest of the film.
Too bad Dano’s portion and Cusack’s half aren’t better married together, more like Wilson’s sonic creations. The movie lacks drive and skips over important facts. The band’s genesis isn’t really mentioned. Wilson’s early marriage and kids – as well as his eventual divorce – are barely covered at all. Later, we don’t know how Wilson met Landy, or how the doctor gained control over the musician and his estate. In fact, by picking two periods and half-telling them, this biopic falls into the same old trap of trying to cover too much territory.
These fragmented stories and the odd casting in the double lead role make the whole film feel truncated – two clashing pieces of incomplete music playing over each other.