Brian Wilson’s life has been filled with tremendous triumphs, tribulations and tragedies, but it takes some screenwriterly sifting to know where to begin.
The Wilson story is not a neat thrill ride of a narrative—it’s not a stratospheric rise followed by precipitous fall. It’s a more gradual, subtle and interior sort of decline, triggered not by the romantic temptations of booze, pills, money and temperament but by madness: the irrepressible noises in his head that helped create the best album in the history of American music while at the same time sowing his downfall.
The sturdy, sensitively handled biopic “Love and Mercy,” which opens nationwide Friday, is centered on this duality, the inexplicable connection between genius and madness that has cemented the legacies and destroyed the health of so many talented artists. To convey this double-edged sword properly, director Bill Pohland and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Allen Lerner skip right over the boring stuff, like the Beach Boys’ commercial development into a top-charting rock ‘n’ roll band, and present a parallel narrative of the two most significant periods in Wilson’s creative and personal lives.
In one, it’s the mid-1960s, and the young Wilson (Paul Dano) is suffering the initial pangs of what appears to be mild schizophrenia while conceiving the baroque pop masterpiece “Pet Sounds”—which he pointedly predicts will be “the great album ever made.” In the other, it’s the 1980s, where the older Wilson (John Cusack), overmedicated and underexposed to the modern world, lives under the oppressive thumb of monstrous psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) while awkwardly courting his future second wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a former model who works at a Cadillac dealership in California.
The ‘60s scenes will provide a trove of nostalgia and insight for Beach Boys fans, because they present the fractious recording of “Pet Sounds” with a documentary attention to detail, from Wilson’s strange and sometimes obtuse directions to the session musicians—performed in the movie by industry professionals—to the rough and unpolished results, snatches of colorful virtuosity awaiting the angelic voices of the Beach Boys choir. There is a sense that we have the privilege of eavesdropping on how the greatest sausage in popular music was made.
Wilson was (and still is) an experimental composer in the body of pop singer, and “Pet Sounds” signaled the beginning of the end for the Beach Boys. “Love and Mercy” includes the inevitable moments of conflict between Wilson and Mike Love (Jake Abel), who is presented as the Beach Boys’ obstinate traditionalist. Wilson is essentially kicked out of his own family band, which leads to his crackup, his 3-year bed-ridden convalescence, and his aging, in seemingly little time at all, into the form of a lumpy John Cusack.
“Love and Mercy” is really two movies in one, and Pohland seems torn between each direction: a conventional biopic narrative to educate nonfans, and an eccentric portrait of an artist in exile, which will better satisfy Wilson’s die-hards. You’ll probably like one approach more than the other.
Because it proceeds in plot-heavy biographical signposts, the ‘60s narrative is less compelling than the character study of the later story; the broken man, as it were, is more interesting to watch than the breaking boy. This is due in large part to Cusack. The gangly, sweet nerd from all those ‘80s movies embodies the most deliberately uncharismatic rock star ever filmed. Because he’s such a wreck—socially awkward, prone to (justifiable) paranoia, monitored around the clock by avaricious handlers—Cusack’s Wilson is the most human of all the rock-biopic protagonists.
If some of the movie’s actions seem rote, stagy and melodramatic, I’m inclined to give Moverman and Pohland the benefit of the doubt. The heated schism between Love and Wilson really did happen, and Giamatti’s doctor was, apparently, an unequivocally evil psycho. Wilson himself has praised the film’s historical accuracy, and I’m happy to trust the source. This may not be the Brian Wilson biopic everyone wanted, but it’s at least half a masterpiece, and probably more.