Dear reader! Yesterday was Drive-in Zeppelin’s first national drive-in movie day! (Didn’t know that was a thing did you?) Huzzahs are in order! Huzzah! Not only that but by my count, this is our 60th full review since we first took off nearly 8 months ago! My how time flies, but there’s no time to waste! Surf’s up and we’re churning out reviews all summer long starting with a very special look at the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy.
Now, because the DIZ doesn’t get very good Wi-Fi, I was not made aware that 2015 was the year of musician biopics. I thought it was just a bunch of post-apocalyptia and spy flicks. God only knows how such a combination came about, but what choice do we have? These movies aren’t going to watch themselves Darlin’.
I guess I had better add the Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain (apparently there are two) documentaries to my queue and grab a box of tissues for the inevitable tear-jerk reminder of their all-too-soon passing. The heartbreak is more reserved for Winehouse mind you, but I must admit that I’m kind of obligated to shed a tear for Cobain after having grown up in the Northwest. That and some idiot decided to make it a bylaw of the Cult of the Zeppelin.
You’d be surprised how often Cobain actually comes up in conversation around here. Just the other day Graf said ‘Kurt Cobain never had a chore wheel, so I don’t see why we need one!’ in response to me politely asking him to do the dishes. Although I did appreciate the Portlandia reference, they have been sitting there for weeks and it doesn’t just smell like teen spirit anymore…
If you’re not too keen on the whole music biopic thing, I would caution you to not dismiss Love & Mercy outright. As opposed to the linear, ‘cram as much into two hours’ style narrative that this sub-genre so often entails, L&M breaks the mold by choosing to only focus on two equally defining periods of Brian Wilson’s iconic life.
For those of you who don’t know, Wilson was the main songwriter and unofficial leader of the Beach Boys. In a bizarre, although masterful telling, Wilson is actually portrayed independently by Paul Dano (60s Wilson) and John Cusack (80s Wilson). I’ll get to the cinematic life and times of the musician in a minute, but I feel obligated to point out the elephant in the room before we go any further. Yes, Dano and Cusack look nothing alike and yet this movie still triumphs in its examination.
And what an examination it is that can say so much about the man by offering only slivers of his engaging and frequently troubled life. At one point during their rise to fame, a young Wilson (Paul Dano) is suddenly gripped with an intense anxiety attack aboard a plane while it’s on a landing approach.
Overcome with fear and uncertainty, the young Brian opts to forego the next leg of the band’s tour in Japan in favor of staying in the safety and confinement of his home. His brothers Dennis and Carl reluctantly agree to this after Brian promises them unthinkable symphonies upon their return. In short, the story of Dano’s Wilson explores the artist’s obsessive perfectionism in crafting his avant-garde masterpiece album Pet Sounds.
The album was a progressive departure for the band from their early days of singing about bikinis and surfing and garnered enormous critical acclaim for its experimentation into the realm of psychedelic pop/rock. You can expect frequent drug use in these cinematic vignettes as well as the comic relief provided by Dano in capturing Wilson’s emerging psychosis and in-studio eccentricities. For instance, he contemplates introducing a horse into the already confined sound studio and crawls inside a piano to pluck the individual strings with a hairpin (though he loses the majority of them).
Cusack’s Wilson focuses on a more troubling time wherein we find a broken, almost simple version of the musician. He is frequently overmedicated and a shadow of his former self. When the radiant Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) finds an unattended pair of sneakers beside a showroom car in her Chrysler dealership, she quickly is introduced to the adult Brian. After mumbling something about sand and creepily locking Melinda and himself in the car, Brian proceeds to vent depressing personal anecdotes—and among other things—asks Melinda out on a date.
Enter Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy—the shady psychiatrist and legal guardian of Cusack’s Wilson. In a domineering fashion, he treats Brian like a child and cautions Melinda of the musicians ‘serious’ mental illness. Landy claims Brian suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, but offers a respite from his melancholy counseling by sharing how he alone was responsible for saving Brian from self-destruction.
While it is absent from the film, the real-life Wilson sunk to his lowest depths of depression and illness and subsequently stayed in bed for several years where he ballooned to over 350 lbs. Film Landy credits proper medication and isolation from family and friends as Brian’s ongoing successful treatment.
After more frequent interaction with Brian and her eventual falling in love, Melinda becomes increasingly worried that Dr. Landy is in fact selfishly mistreating his patient by overmedicating him. This portion of Wilson’s story is noticeably darker in tone and features growing discomfort and a feeling of desperation for Melinda as she tries to save the man she loves.
The narrative of the film, much like Wilson’s chaotic mind, refuses to conform to any sort of linear structure. It’s truly amazing to watch seemingly unrelated portrayals gel so harmoniously into a feature film, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was all miraculously intentional by director Bill Pohland. The word I would probably use to best describe Love & Mercy is appropriately ‘stereophonic’ as the editing is near seamless.
I’ve found folks like me to use film comparisons, so let me just conjure up a preview of this film by saying it’s as if you took Amadeus and layered it with A Beautiful Mind and some mild drug use. It’s fascinating to see Wilson’s gradual descent into madness and his creation of a masterpiece harmonizing with an abusive melodrama—all with little to no thematic connections to the more muted tale in the 1980’s.
Both segments are entirely organic and are primarily achieved through Cusack and Dano’s unique portrayals of the same individual. I mean, Dano is a dead ringer for a young Brian Wilson, but Cusack doesn’t look a thing like his real life intended or his onscreen ‘younger self’. Let’s face it—Cusack hasn’t done anything captivating in a long time, but I’d argue the actor has turned that trend around by capturing the finer nuances of an adult Brian Wilson. It’s the subtly of his hand gestures and soft-spoken mumblings that truly captivated me and instilled a thorough investment in his character.
I would praise the various film gods that someone had the good sense to not try and artificially create visual continuity between the two actors via makeup or CGI. The immediate film that comes to mind is Looper, mainly because Paul Dano had a bit role, but more importantly because this sci-fi spectacle is an example of going beyond simply making two actors who are playing the same character look like each other. That film worked because Joseph Gordon-Levitt captured the subtleties of Bruce Willis, not because he was dolled up to resemble an older version of a character.
Much like Cusack, Paul Dano shines as the young version of Brian in his own unique way. Dano has always been a dark horse ‘favorite actor’ of mine, and one who easily crafts a Wilson that is as eccentric as he is emotionally complex. I’d rather not spoil any of his screen-time, but let me just state for the record that things like actually playing the piano and sharing your vocals during iconic songs lend themselves to delivering an outstanding performance.
All around I’d say the acting is pretty good in Love & Mercy, and that’s not without noteworthy mentions to the highly underrated Paul Giamatti and a very convincing Elizabeth Banks. Jake Abel also delivers a strong supporting role as Mike Love. Everyone knows Love is a giant dick, and Abel captures it perfectly.
If I was going to fault the movie for anything it would probably be the underdevelopment or skating over of the other Wilson brothers and more minor characters like Brian’s first wife Audree (Joanna Going). At first, this film seems to be a bit disjointed, but trust me when I say it’s—as a whole—a cacophony of symphonies. There will be plenty of opportunity for singalongs to your favorite Beach Boys jingles, but you should be prepared for some really cool sound editing and song distortion to mimic the younger Brian’s anxiety-infested mind.
Camerawork all around is pretty solid, and I particularly liked the use of the 360 revolve shots to accentuate some of the more emotional scenes. A wonderful example of this would be in the scene where a young Brian upliftingly stumbles upon the beginnings to his soon-to-be critically acclaimed ‘God Only Knows’ single only to have the camera spiral around him and reveal a pajama-clad father wearing a look of disgust.
This is a truly beautiful shot in that it reveals Brian’s crafting of heavenly ballads to escape his psychotic demons and abusive upbringing. You’ll see this more visually as the color palette changes from warmer yellows and reds to the cool muted blues and grays of depression and paranoia. While the film’s subject matter is tragically dark, you won’t want to miss the captivating light this biopic shines on the American musical genius.
The Bottom Line:
Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you to
Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego,
Baby why don’t we go
Ooh I wanna take you down to Alamo [Drafthouse]
We’ll get there fast
And then we’ll take it slow
That’s where we wanna go
Way down to Alamo [Drafthouse]
There’s no Kokomo, but that’s no excuse to miss the Brian Wilson biopic. Flawless editing, superb performances—this is a film any Beach Boys fan is going to want to see. (That goes for you folks too, what with your death metal and headbanging and all)