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As a general rule, I am not a big fan of the music biopic. They tend to exploit tragedy and engage in period piece fetishism. I usually prefer documentaries about musicians. But once in a while, a biopic comes out that rises to the level of the art of the musician the film portrays. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (2014) is one of those films. His tribute to Brian Wilson, the legendary genius behind the Beach Boys, is a knock-out beautiful film that puts the audience inside Brian Wilson’s mind, paints a picture of the alienation and isolation of the creative outsider, and is a call to make room for artistic visionaries in a world that has little room for those who see and feel things differently.
The film contains many standard biopic characteristics. Brian’s domineering father Murry Wilson is played by Bill camp who masterfully captures Murry’s systematic abuse of Brian. Miserable, drunk, and competitive, Murry is a constant presence in Brian’s emotional life (even when he’s absent), and his voice echoes inside Brian’s head (a head which is 95% deaf in one ear from being knocked so hard by his dad). The film shows how Murry attempted to control Brian’s emotional and musical life, and how Brian broke free from him while still remaining emotionally imprisoned by his father’s abusive legacy.
In one particularly memorable scene, Murry sits on the sofa in his house wearing a bathrobe and holding a cocktail in his hand while Brian taps out the music and the lyrics to “God Only Knows” on the piano. A metronome sits on a shelf, a totem of how music was drilled into Brian but also his escape. Young Brian(Paul Dano) closes his eyes and pours his very soul into the song. He then opens this eyes and asks his dad what he thinks. Murry dismisses the song as garbage, a “wishy washy suicide note” that will “never be a hit.” Dano’s face shows the conflict inside him between knowing the song is sublimely beautiful and transcendent while also desperately wanting (but never getting) his father’s approval. His father, whether in the scenes or not, is always in Brian’s head, and he is referenced throughout the film as the man who both made and destroyed Brian.
Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Wilson’s psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy is sickeningly and horrifically monstrous. The man is utterly disgusting, a terrifying caregiver who is really a manipulative and mindfucking extortionist who cares for no one but himself. He packs in many powerful scenes, but most effective are one where he denies older Brian (John Cusack) food in front of his girlfriend, and one when he eerily appears in a music studio “control room” when Brian is planning to escape Landy’s tyranny with the girl of his dreams , Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Giamatti’s performance – full of loathsome false love and sadistic mind games – is like a scary carnival ride that is utterly real and comically terrifying.
The film introduces yet another standard biopic role – the love who saves Brian’s life, Melissa Ledbetter. Ledbetter is a washed up model turned Cadillac salesman (she is called a “salesman” in the film) – who sells Brian a Fleetwood (with the approval of Landy), captures Brian’s heart, and saves his life. Banks does an amazing job of playing an independent girl from the 1980s. Her acting – expressions, body language, and extreme femininity combined with uncompromising strength in the face of this musical legacy and the tyrant who is controlling him – is brilliant. She carries her blond hair and 80s fashions (big belts, high heels, tight jeans) perfectly, like a suit of armor with a heart of gold. Her teeth glow white with the LA sun, as she fights between heart and logic and manages to merge both.
As a historical biopic, the film is required on some level to be a period piece. But it’s not just one period piece – it’s two. It shows young Wilson (Paul Dano) in the 60s and early 70s and then older recluse Wilson (John Cusack) in the 80s. The split timeframe and split-acting mirror the split inside Wilson himself. The film was co-written by Oren Moverman who also wrote the groundbreaking biopic I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, a film which ingeniously uses multiple actors (including women and children) to play a single musical legend. The interplay between Dano and Cusack is seamlessly blended throughout the film and is one of the things that sets the movie aside from standard biopic dreck. Both actors capture Wilson’s soul in every gesture, every word, every movement. The two actors become a single person compromised of complex parts. Just like in I’m Not There, multiple actors show the complexity of the individual portrayed much more effectively than a single actor. Using multiple actors in Love & Mercy doesn’t just provide a tool for showing human aging. It shows the multi-faceted layers of being, feeling and seeing that are the artist Brian Wilson.
Yes, the film contains traditional biopic elements (dominating and abusive father figures and love that saves the day), but the film does not lean on these to make its point. Murry Wilson and Eugene Landy may have dominated Brian Wilson’s life, and Melissa Ledbetter may have saved his life, but these characters do not dominate, own or save the film. The film is about the spirit of Brian Wilson, and his spirit as a visionary artist is what resonates in every frame.
The power of the movie comes from the quiet moments, along with the dynamic and nuanced performance by Dano and Cusack. Scenes like the ones in which Brian Wilson (both Paul Dano and John Cusack) stand silently in a recording studio with nothing but a piano and raises his arms as if he is in a cathedral. Brian is in a cathedral – the one inside his head and the one created by his music. It is the scenes when we see Brian isolated in his private world of thought, music, and vision that own the film – when he sits by the poolside staring into the blue LA sky or when he sits on the hood of a car losing himself in the stars. Brian is no doubt writing songs inside his head in these scenes.
Brian continually references the “voices inside his head”; these are the voices that “make him crazy” but they also are what allow him to make music. Even when he lies in bed motionless and obese listening to nothing but the soundtrack of his own unique brain, we can feel Brian’s spirit; or when the sound of silverware clanking at dinner party becomes too much to bear for him, we understand the dissonance between him and the world.
There has been much speculation about Brian Wilson’s mental health. Landy had him diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had him on enough pills to kill ten elephants. What this film delicately shows is that artists aren’t necessarily “crazy.” Rather, the world is crazy, and these few gifted people – the Brian Wilson’s of the world – bring a little “Love & Mercy” to the crazy world through their creative expressions.
The extended sequence when Brian decides not to tour with the Beach Boys but instead stay home and record music is a wonderful and exciting tribute to the artist at work. These scenes show Brian working with studio musicians to create the layers of signature sounds that appear on the revolutionary Pet Sounds album, including Brian’s own voice talking and his dogs barking. The sequence is exciting and invigorating and shows a man who lives for music. All of the scenes with Brian compile into a singular complex artist, and they allow us access to the inaccessible world inside Wilson’s head, a world which we otherwise would only know through his music. In the film, we get to feel where the music comes from.
Because the movie is recreating two historic time periods – the 60s and the 80s –, it has to rely on mise en scene to take us back in time. Costumes, set designs, cars, and small details like lamps, furniture, and ashtrays become signatures of history. Biopics can overdo the mise en scene and turn movies into fetish objects functioning as a kind of Vintage Porn. Love & Mercy delicately manages to get every single detail exactly right while not letting the details dominate the film (just like it doesn’t let Landy, Murry and Elizabeth dominate the film). Cinematographer Robert Yeoman does an amazing job of capturing time by changing film stock (recreating the look of 60s film) and allowing the mise en scene to be more of a backdrop rather than a centerpiece.
The sound design is also a critical character in the film. It artfully bleeds music from the Beach Boys’ past in the 60s into Brian’s life in the present of the 1980s, and it also carves out audioscapes that let us hear the dissonance and the music in Brian’s head – the clang, clatter and thrum of the world Brian occupies pulses like a mad heart at the core of the film.
Yeoman subtly changes light to show the radiating brilliance of Wilson’s brain (rays of sun dissolving into white); the claustrophobia of his world (dark rooms with low ceilings), or the emptiness of his isolation (clinically gray white space of his Malibu home/jail). The film is chockfull of period details, but the camera tends to allow those details to linger in the margins. The material world is often fractured. A single heating vent; a patch of textured ceiling; the bottom of a picture frame; the arm of a chair; a glimpse of locks on kitchen cabinets; the edge of a swimming pool; the crumpled sheets of a bed – these things situate the film in time and place. But because they are often fractured and much of the “space” of the film disappears off frame, these details end up mirroring Wilson’s own fractured life and isolation.
Yeoman is best known as cinematographer for Wes Anderson films, a director whose movies focus on creative outsiders, not unlike Brian Wilson. Yeoman’s signature style makes films look like collages or dioramas. This allows him to show different styles for the time periods while also showing a world of objects in which the artist is often at odds. Brian is clearly most comfortable when he is in his own head making music, not when he is in the vast space of the world of clanking silverware and psychiatrist pill pushers. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) actually uses the Beach Boy’s song “Heroes and Villains.” Brian Wilson recorded this song during his breakdown, and he re-released his original vision of the song to critical acclaim on his 2004 album SMiLE when returned to the world of music from the dark hole where he had descended. Yeoman’s role as cinematographer is certainly a conscious choice that acknowledges Anderson’s affinity with outsider artists as a way of finding a place for the Brian Wilsons of the world.
Not like we should assume there ever was or will be another Brian Wilson. Part of being a visionary artist is having a distinctly individual and unique vision that makes it very hard to cope with living in a world that shuns people who are different. Still, Wilson made it. As the credits roll, the living breathing Brian Wilson performs a beautifully tender rendition of the song “Love & Mercy” after which the film was titled. When his face appears, it is clear how much both Paul Dano and John Cusack capture him in the movie. This clip of the “real Brian Wilson” sutures the space between fiction and reality. Having a “current time” appearance by the film’s subject is a unique feature in a biopic, a genre which almost always features dead people. The appearance of Wilson is deeply affective as his vulnerability and triumph come through in a song that is a testament of a cruel world that is hard on tender people.
Naysayers will argue about what is fact and what is fiction in this movie, and personally I don’t care what is fact or what is fiction. That’s not the point. The movie spoke to me on a universal level – as the story of a visionary artist (ANY visionary artist, but one who happens to be Brian Wilson) who lives in and occupies a world that he sees more clearly than most people but is also a world that has no place for him.
What this film shows is the struggles and quiet triumph of an artist who has vision, who sees and feels the world too intensely, who occupies the margins and always will occupy the margins. A man who was taken advantage of, misrepresented, and who will never “fit in” or be “defined.” But that can be true for so many artists. This is the Brian Wilson story, but it is also the story for every single visionary person who fights with the constraints of a world which likes to dominate, possess and define.