Love & Mercy

Bill Pohlad  2015  121m

Biopics are a risky business. They will always take an outsider’s view of someone else’s life, no matter how historically accurate the script is. With Love & Mercy, released this past summer, director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner embrace this fact wholeheartedly, and the resulting film is entirely engrossing and touching. The film functions as an incredible engine of empathy, and puts you right inside the head of Brian Wilson, the troubled pop genius behind the Beach Boys.

We experience his story in two separate time periods, edited to appear alongside each other. One is set in the mid-1960s during which a young Wilson, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Dano, pulls out of the Beach Boys’ world tour after suffering an intense panic attack. He promises his band members that he will have a whole new album ready for them by the time they get back to California. He’s full of new ideas, sounds, harmonies, and instruments, he says. Little do any of them know that this album will eventually become 1966’s Pet Sounds, now regarded as one of the most influential records in the history of pop music. With his band members gone, Brian invites hoards of musicians to his studio. He is bursting with creative energy, and leaves all the musicians in awe of his passion and ideas. However, it soon becomes apparent that we are witnessing a gradual descent into madness as his panic attacks become more frequent. The borders between creativity and madness become blurred and eventually Brian’s mental condition is rendered too unstable for him to continue his career as a musician.

If this story line can be described as a descent into madness, the other could be seen as his road to recovery. The second story line focuses on former model Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who meets Brian, played here by John Cusack, almost 20 years after he disappeared off the radar of popular culture. His mental condition has clearly only deteriorated further. He is subject to a radical treatment that apparently requires his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), to stay with him 24/7. Melinda is witness to Landy’s aggressive manipulation of Brian’s fragile mind that forces him into obedience. Their relationship has a hint of Stockholm syndrome; Brian fears yet loves his therapist, not dissimilar to how a pet may fear and love its master. As Melinda’s and Brian’s friendship develops into a love affair, she realizes that it is up to her to save Brian from this oppressive “treatment” and put him back on the right path towards recovery.

It is extremely engaging to witness Brian’s descent into madness and his recovery from it side by side. The pacing is excellent—although the film builds towards two separate climaxes, they seemingly progress as one. What’s even more striking is the decision to make Brian Wilson the protagonist in the ’60s timeline, but only a supporting character twenty years later. We are right inside the young Brian’s head: the sound design does a great job of mixing the film’s original score with eerie, detached Beach Boys vocals, as if Brian is haunted by his musical ideas wherever he goes. We share his stress as much as we share his urge to express the music that is in his head. At the same time, we see the older version of him through Melinda’s eyes, not his own. We are given an outsider’s view of his situation so that we can clearly see how the psychosis and bad treatment has taken its toll on him. It is a daring but extremely effective idea to tell the story from an objective as well as from a subjective point of view simultaneously.

The critical reception of Love & Mercy has generally trended toward favoring the ’60s story line. Seeing as both story lines are quite different stylistically, it isn’t much of a surprise that critics have (unofficially) picked a favorite. Overall Paul Dano has received more praise for his performance than John Cusack, some even calling it a career best. It is true that Cusack’s depiction of Brian Wilson, with his endless variety of nervous tics, is more over-the-top. However, it is nowhere near as as cartoonish as Giamatti’s Dr. Eugene Landy, whose body language just screams “ANTAGONIST” wherever he goes. This isn’t to say their performances aren’t believable or enjoyable. If anything the two performances serve an essential narrative purpose, as we sense the good in Brian and the bad in Landy right from the outset. It may not be subtle, but it does easily justify Melinda’s immediate affection towards our oddball hero.

Perhaps the ’60s timeline is simply more “fun”. Overall it’s a more positive side of the story, in which Brian’s psychosis works with him rather than against him. The scenes in the recording studio are especially enjoyable to watch. In these scenes cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman switches from 35mm to 16mm film stock and from static to handheld camera, and lets the camera freely drift around the studio. It is in these moments that Brian can release all the ideas that are accumulating in his head, and we share his delight in setting them free. Cusack’s Brian Wilson is the opposite. No longer a working musician, he has no way of expressing himself, and Landy’s aggressive treatments have made him very reclusive. The style of the film follows this reclusion: the shots are longer and the camera is more cautious in the way it moves.

Although the older Brian may be more reclusive, deep down he is still bursting with ideas. The way in which this is shown through his music is brilliant and touching. One scene depicts Brian and Melinda sitting at a piano, when he spontaneously plays a bunch of chords. “That’s just something that came up when I saw you,” he says, “sometimes your inner voice wants to express itself and every once in a while your soul comes out to play, you know?” When asked what he will do with the song, he simply says: “Nothing. It’s gone.” The song isn’t mentioned again. However, at the end, as the title flashes up on screen, a familiar chord progression can be heard. The real Brian Wilson appears on screen, performing live on stage. He is playing the song “Love & Mercy”—the opening track of his first solo album, released July 1988.

Showing the real person’s face at the end of a biopic may have become a bit of a cliché, but this is surely the most poignant way I’ve ever seen it done. Whether the real Melinda actually was the inspiration for the chords to “Love & Mercy” or not, the song’s meaning in the film is clear. It is Melinda’s affection for Brian that saved him at a time when everyone else had abandoned him. Perhaps he never needed any psychiatric treatment. All he needed was some understanding, and a little love and mercy.