Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson, of The Beach Boys, is the perfect example of ‘troubled genius’. With his unorthodox approach to song composition and arrangement, he is – quite rightly – widely considered one of the most innovative, influential and iconic creative forces in the history of music. In the 1960s, his mental health deteriorated as he composed, arranged and produced The Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds and the aborted follow-up Smile. In the 1980s, the excessively troubled Wilson found himself under the ‘treatment’ of the highly unethical Dr. Eugene Landy, in an era of his life so unusual you couldn’t make it up. Brian Wilson’s life story is one of the most fascinating, moving and inspiring in the history of not just music, but life itself. It is a daunting task to make a biopic of this man.


Out now on DVD & Blu-Ray comes Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad with a screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman. The film, which takes its title from a 1988 song by Brian Wilson, is presented in a parallel narrative. Those two important eras I outlined in the introduction to this review? They’re both covered. At the same time. Yes, Love & Mercy takes a highly unconventional approach to biographical film and the results are simply breath-taking. We see the 1960s, as a phenomenal Paul Dano (seen currently in BBC’s War & Peace) portrays the young, mentally unstable Wilson creating The Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds and attempting to create a follow-up album. And we also see the 1980s, with John Cusack portraying the older, broken Wilson under the watchful eye of the deceitful psychotherapist Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti) as he realises the love of a beautiful woman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) might just be all he needs to save him.


Each of the film’s narratives is presently chronologically, but we bounce from one to the other and back again throughout. It’s not done in a jarring or uncomfortable way though – quite the contrary, it makes for an incredibly powerful viewing experience. In the 1960s side, Paul Dano is simply amazing. Having gained weight for the role, Dano looks almost uncannily similar to the young Brian Wilson and his voice, mannerisms and singing makes for one of the most eerily convincing performances in recent years. He’s been Golden Globe-nominated for this performance and it’d be a crime if he wasn’t nominated for the Oscar too. This side of the film is also stunningly accurate, with the Pet Sounds recording sessions in particular full of the most passionate attention to detail that will make my fellow Beach Boys buffs delighted. The 1980s side is also incredibly well-made, with a trio of brilliant performances from Cusack, Giamatti and Banks. Although Cusack doesn’t quite look uncannily like Wilson, he walks the walk and talks the talk. His performance is almost as good as Dano’s, and despite not meeting Dano during the production or discussing how they would portray Wilson beforehand, you can tell he’s playing the same man – the two actors have perfect synergy. And while the 1960s side of the story is primarily a story of music and passion, this side is a story of love and overcoming your demons. It almost creates a 2-films-in-1 feel, but yet doesn’t feel uncomfortable or messy. The timelines weave in and out of each other seamlessly.

But this film is not all about the performances. Atticus Ross’s score and the soundtrack itself is one of the strongest elements of the film. Ross’s largely ambient score recycles original Beach Boys mixes – primarily vocals, harmonies, etc. – into a new composition to represent Brian’s increasingly fragile psyche. This is hugely effective in the darker and more moving scenes of the film, while the frequent use of Beach Boys tracks throughout the film creates an authenticity and just a bloody good soundtrack. Brian Wilson himself also contributed a beautiful new song to the film entitled One Kind Of Love, which is getting a lot of hype for this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars race in the Best Original Song category. The film is also visually gorgeous thanks to Robert Yeoman’s stunning cinematography, which makes you feel like you could step into the gorgeously constructed 60s aesthetic of the young Brian Wilson.

But the main thing that makes Love & Mercy so darn good is the passion and respect that is apparent throughout. This is an often darkly honest story of a man – a man who is still alive, no less. The story is delivered with such respect that it is extremely moving to watch, but it is also inspiring, uplifting and entertaining. Those of you who have read my Top 10 Films of 2015 list will remember I ranked Love & Mercy at number one. I stand by that, and repeat viewings of this beautiful film just make me love it more. I could go on about it all day, but I’m wasting precious time that you could be using to experience it.


I’m a lifelong fan of Brian’s, and this film moved me to tears on numerous occasions. But I can guarantee that even if you’ve never heard one note of a Beach Boys or Brian Wilson song, you’ll be moved too. This isn’t just a story about music, it’s a story about life. It’s a story about love. It’s a story about mercy.

Love & Mercy
is a flawless film about the most talented, innovative and influential musician in history. Watch it. Now. 5/5

★★★★★


Sam Love


Love & Mercy at CeX


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