“Brian Wilson Gets Around”
“Love & Mercy”
Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Directed by Bill Pohlad
God only knows what the America music scene would have been like back in the 1960s without the artistic brilliance of Brian Wilson. Between 1962 and 1966, Wilson was the unparalleled genius who wrote, co-wrote and produced some of the most enduring songs in pop music history with the group he co-founded, The Beach Boys. These were iconic songs that fully defined the “California Sound,” thanks to chart-topping hits like “Surfin’ USA,” “Catch a Wave,” “Little Deuce Coup,” “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
During that time, The Beach Boys even gave those mop-tops from the UK, The Beatles, a run for their money like no other American band – and vice-versa, as their competitive rivalry brought out the best in each other. When Wilson heard the fab four’s innovative 1965 album “Rubber Soul,” he pushed his own band to top it with 1966’s landmark “Pet Sounds.” Then The Beatles answered that call with 1967’s game-changing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
But breaking new ground came at a price, and it was one that cost Wilson dearly: his sanity. After he retired from touring with The Beach Boys following a nervous breakdown, he re-focused his efforts on pushing the boundaries of the recording studio. But he was constantly at odds with the rest of the band – especially lead singer Mike Love – who didn’t understand the complex arrangements and sophisticated musicianship and would rather stick to the tried-and-true hit-making formula of singing about surfing, cars and girls.
Then there was Brian’s physically and verbally abusive father-turned-manager, Murray Wilson. Jealous of his talent, envious of his success, out of touch with his son’s generation and wholly unsupportive of Brian’s new musical direction (inspired with the help of mind-altering drugs), it’s no wonder that Brian finally lost his marbles, gave up on his musical vision and pretty much locked himself in his bedroom for the better part of the next decade.
An unconventional musician with such an incredible background deserves an unconventional biopic, and that’s exactly what “Love & Mercy” is – and then some. As directed by Bill Polhad (the Oscar-nominated producer of “The Tree of Life”) from a screenplay written by Oren Overman (“The Messenger”) and Michael Alan Lerner, the film jumps back and forth in time, and with two different actors playing Brian Wilson.
That might sound confusing, but it’s an ingenious approach, and it’s much more accessible than a film like 2007’s avant-garde “I’m Not There,” in which music legend Bob Dylan was played by six different actors (including Cate Blanchett). Paul Dano is superb as the groundbreaking 60’s-era Wilson, who fought an uphill battle with the evolution of his music, while John Cusack is equally terrific as the sweet-but-emotionally fragile Wilson in the mid-80’s, when he was under the 24/7 control of his domineering therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, played with creepy egocentric self-absorption by Paul Giamatti.
Music history buffs will find the Dano sequences fascinating, especially during the in-studio scenes where Wilson conducts session musicians (often not the actual Beach Boys), until he unravels during the making of his would-be masterpiece, “Smile” (an album that would remain unfinished until 2011). But the heart and soul of “Love & Mercy” lies with Cusack, who tries to break away from Landy’s unhealthy stranglehold with the help of his iron-willed new girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter, played with strength and gusto by Elizabeth Banks (who’s on an incredible roll this year after directing the box office smash “Pitch Perfect 2”).
Though it runs a bit too long at 2 hours, “Love & Mercy” is still a terrific film about one of the most complex musical virtuosos in rock history. It’s deeply fascinating and engaging from start to finish, and the satisfying emotional impact is bound to give moviegoers – dare I say it? – good vibrations.