When I was in nursery school, I had a VHS tape called ‘Spot Goes to School,’ about an animated dog named Spot. Thing is, I don’t remember anything about ‘Spot Goes to School’, though I assume he went to school. The one and only vivid memory I have of that VHS tape was a short music video that played before it. It was The Muppets singing a song called ‘Kokomo,’ which I didn’t know until years later was actually by a band called The Beach Boys. I would tell my parents to put that VHS tape in just to hear that song. Sorry Spot, but you were irrelevant to me.
Though my parents didn’t listen to them, The Beach Boys were still one of those enduring musical entities, like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, that every kid was aware of in some fashion. If not thanks to ‘Spot Goes to School,’ then maybe from snippets on commercials for compilation CDs, or a friend’s mom who would play ‘Surfin’ USA’ or ‘Fun Fun Fun’ on the carpool to school. As a kid, all I knew of them was that they were from a time long ago and that, as the name would suggest, they were a band all about breezy summer fun.
But those long-held perceptions were completely wrong. First of all, the band was not quite as old or outdated as my child-brain had thought. The band’s frontman Brian Wilson was still making music while I was growing up, albeit solo — and in fact, he still is. Second, beyond the superficial, sunny tones of some of their most popular hits, it turns out that the band’s frontman Brian Wilson has an incongruously dark life story. It’s a classic example of irony, that the man who gave the world songs titled ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ did so while enduring acute bouts of anxiety, memories of an abusive father, and more.
It’s this tragic irony that fuels Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, a music biopic that bucks the tired formula (as expertly satirized by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) just enough to feel fresh. Some may claim that the movie’s uniqueness comes from its non-chronological movement between two very different periods in Wilson’s life. In the 1960s, we watch as a young Wilson (Paul Dano) attempts to break away from the sugary, airy Beach Boys formula to experiment with the much more psychedelic sounds that would become the masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’, his mind becoming more fragile in the process. In the 1980s, we follow Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) as she forms a relationship with a much older and mentally broken Wilson (John Cusack) and sets out to save him from the clutches of slimy, exploitative therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
But this split narrative isn’t really what makes the film stand out. Plenty of movies, even other music biopics, use nonlinear storylines in more compelling ways than Pohlad. Rather, what makes Love & Mercy special is less obvious. Whereas other biopics tackle their subjects with an air of confident objectivity, telling us that ‘this is what _____ was really like’, here is a biopic that admits that we can never know the true depth of Brian Wilson’s mind. It’s the mystery of his genius, both produced by and feeding his inner demons, that the movie attempts to broach but never pretends to fully comprehend. It’s a humbler biopic in this way, one which feels more truthful to human experience as a result.
Where the film has the indisputable right to be confident, and where Pohlad readily takes that opportunity, is in the craft. Both eras are faithfully recreated, believable yet distinct from one another. We get the sense that the whole world has changed along with Brian. I could have done without the pseudo-documentary style of the 1960s half, but in all Pohlad demonstrates an impressively wide range for a first-time director. The movie feels a little frantic at times, but I’m willing to defend this as being in keeping with the splintered psyche of the protagonist.
One of Love & Mercy’s greatest strengths is its extraordinary implementation of The Beach Boys’ music in order to convey Wilson’s ailing mental state throughout the film. When Dano’s Wilson begins hearing voices in his head, it’s more often not accompanied by subtle samples of Beach Boys tracks. Music is utilized expertly in virtually every area of the film. Oscar winner Atticus Ross provides a score that is beautiful in its own right but is supported by the musical stylings of Wilson. In addition, given that the Dano sections of the movie revolve around his creation of some now-classic tracks, we also get to hear familiar songs in a stripped-down, in-development state.
Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti are all fantastic, though Dano is the clear standout with a look of perpetual discomfort that externalizes what can never truly be shown going on inside his head. Giamatti, meanwhile, commits to a role that is almost so over-the-top that he comes across as a super-villain. However, this is more a problem with a script that forces obstacles into Wilson’s path at every turn. It would seem as though everyone in Wilson’s life during the 1960s was contractually obligated to give him a hard time. And even though the screenwriters argue that Dr. Landy was indeed as cartoonishly dastardly as Giamatti plays him, he and the other opposing characters appear so consistently and bluntly antagonistic that it’s hard to take seriously, true-to-life or not.
Though at times cumbersome (it would have benefitted from a slightly shorter runtime) and structurally ungainly, Love & Mercy is more interesting and touching than most biopics I’ve seen revolving around pop culture icons. By focusing on the mind of Brian Wilson and not just on his actions, Pohlad’s film feels more inquisitive and empathetic than most of its kind. It’s certainly worth braving the rough patches, whether you’re a fan of The Beach Boys or just know them from some childhood VHS tape.
Score: 3.5 out of 5