My last review – Now You See Me (2013) was very much a rant at a shallow and for me pointless film that had to be expressed. I feel much more positive when it comes to Love & Mercy (2014) an obscurely structured bio-pic of the musical genius Brian Wilson, yes a genius. I wish I caught this at the time of release, it’s very much a film that has to be seen projected not on the small-screen if you can help it. If I’m honest with all the controversy surrounding Brian Wilson I thought something like this could never happen. Instead it was quite the opposite, he was very supportive of the production, on set at times for guidance, no wonder it has a unique visual and audio style that can only be linked to him.
My first thoughts as the film began were that it was fragmented, opening with the younger Wilson (Paul Dano) at the piano before darkness and re-made home-videos giving us a brief history up to the point of the film in the mid 1960’s before Pet Sounds was being recorded and the start of Smile. It bounces back and forth between The Beach Boys heyday and Brian Wilson (John Cusack) in the 1980’s under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Dano is visually a better fit to Wilson in comparison to Cusack the weathered and suffering Wilson 20 years later. I think the casting here was more about the acting ability than the visual comparison. It takes a while for me to accept Cusack’s Wilson is more about the effects of the past. He’s very much a troubled man when we meet him wanting to buy a car from Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who is for once not side-dressing, a very important part of this side of the film. Dano very much absorbs the part of Wilson, it’s like he’s been talking to Wilson, listened to the back-catalogue and has become the young Wilson, even putting on a belly for good measure.
Visually we are seeing this film from Wilson’s mind, not just his point of view, bright and full of hope when we meet him in the 1960’s, it’s all bleak in the 1980’s. Darting back and forth as if we are having a conversation with him, being delivered these fragments that energize his music which feels richer when you hear it being recorded even just for film. There’s definitely an attempt to make a fresh stamp on this story by re-enacting performances, which is both more immersive for the film, and distracting, having to think is that the actors or the archive footage. You can see a lot of love and attention to detail has gone into this film, a labour of love.
Wilson definitely had his demons in both times that are holding him back. In the 1960’s we have his abusive, controlling father Murry (Bill Camp) who is already left out in the cold, still has an influence over Brian and the band. The band themselves are fighting him over this new sound. Being both radical and innovative, meeting resistance from writing partner Mike Love (Jake Abel) who wants to return to tried and tested, knowing what works and sells. Not as instinctive as Wilson who begins to fall into what we later learn is a combination of drug use and paranoia that will trouble him more in the form of Cusack.
This is not your ordinary linear music-biopic, which I saw also in Get on Up (2014) which used a similar approach to telling the life story of James Brown however I felt it was just messed up. Here’s very much in the tone of Wilson’s mind, messed-up, broken and incredibly creative. We get an insight to his thought processes, not that we didn’t with James Brown, however that was more linear, when it wasn’t flashing back to his child-hood. There’s more structure is the fragments, a reason for their being. Obviously made in two parts and juggled together. Love & Mercy was definitely worth the wait, tonally spot on, brought alive by Dano’s performance, which I was more interested. Whilst you still need Cusack for the film to work, you can’t have the effects of his early life and not have the consequences.