LOVE & MERCY is a beautifully directed and acted biopic of the legendary musician Brian Wilson. Directed by Bill Pohlad from a script by Oren Movermen (RAMPART), the movie is sensitive, deeply felt and cleverly constructed. It weaves together a narrative from two parts of Wilson's turbulent life. In the first period of the mid-60s we meet the Beach Boys as global superstars selling a myth of ever-happy sunshine-drenched California living. But Brian, who writes and crucially arranges all of the music, is feeling hemmed in by the pressure to be up-beat and what's to create a perfect album with complex harmonies, dubbing and influences. It's the album that's going to become PET SOUNDS. The music press loves to create fatuous lists of the all-time greatest albums of all time, but I've always felt that PET SOUNDS really is one of those seminal albums - arguably the best of the 60s, and just seeing it being created in the studio is one of the joys of this film. But it's bittersweet because you're also seeing Brian's fellow band-mates/brothers push against his need to take them into darker more complex territory, as well as his first experimentation with drugs and slow slide into a kind of mental breakdown that's going to lead him to spending two years in bed in the 70s. Paul Dano is absolutely fantastic in this role. Both the mental slide and the precision producing feel authentic. In fact, this feels like one of the best films to document how music is actually produced.
In the second time-period, we see Brian (John Cusack) in the mid-80s, under the malign influence of Dr Feelgood aka Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and started to date his future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). Brian's the same sweet soul and off illegal highs but Landy's got him under complete control with over-medication and sheer emotional terrorism. What's fascinating is seeing how that terror is echoed in his stories of his childhood with an abusive father who continues to screw him over financially despite the Beach Boys sacking his as manager. But it's Giamatti who's the real villain of the piece, fluctuating between oleaginous charm and sinister control as he tries to break Brian and Melinda up and squeeze yet another album out of his financial cash-cow.
The central performances in this film are outstanding - Dano deserves some kind of award. But the production as a whole is just perfection. I love the way both timelines are inter-cut to contrast and enhance the consistent themes in Brian's life - the mental illness, controlling men, musical genius almost painful to live with. The aural landscape is also superlative. Not just the fact that we see iconic tracks created in front of us, but the way in which the film takes us into Brian's aural world and how the over-sensitivity to voice and sounds in his head leads to his breakdown. It's as thought the famous overlapping harmonies and melodies in the Beach Boys music merges into an inescapable and sinister soundtrack to life that's unbearable. The resulting film is compassionate, intricate and ultimately uplifting. It's the film that Brian Wilson deserves.
LOVE & MERCY played Toronto 2014 and Berlin and SXSW 2015. It is currently on release in the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, Singapore, Kuwait, France, Spain and Ireland. It opens later in July in Portugal and South Korea. It opens in August in Japan, Greece, Israel, Sweden and Turkey.