The musician biopic is well-worn territory at this point. Even though the personalities of these artists may be very different, their rise to success, fallout, and rise back up to relevance all feel incredibly similar to one another. Only recently have people started to play a little with the presentation of these stories. Last year, we had the James Brown biopic Get On Up, which basically shifted around the scenes in a random chaotic order, which makes sense for James Brown. In Love & Mercy, about the life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, he is presented in two separate timelines, which adds a lot of energy and intrigue to the story while also letting us explore moments of Wilson’s life and stuggles more personally.
The first timeline finds Wilson as a young man (portrayed by Paul Dano), drifting away from the classic surf sounds he’s known for into his own voice, while also being confronted more and more by the voices in his head. The second is a middle-aged Wilson (John Cucack), being overly medicated and taken advantage of by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti with a wig) and falling in love with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac salesperson. Focusing on the narrow points of the man’s life adds a lot of heart in a way that never seems overly manipulative. We see Wilson deal with his auditory hallucinations in a way that feels real, and the two timelines juxtaposed with one another effectively show how they have affected him over time.
The younger timeline, set in the 1960s, does work a bit better, as the older timeline felt a bit more conventional. That being said, Cusack is doing some of the best work he has done in a long, long time in this movie.
Much of the early scenes involve Wilson putting together the legendary “Pet Sounds” album, and I love being able to watch people do their job and do it well. Wilson hunched over the back of a grand piano, plucking strings with bobby pins in order to get the right sound is mesmerizing. If the entire movie was the orchestrating of “Pet Sounds”, I would not have been the least bit disappointed.
The production detail in both timelines is strong, but the earlier period has a much more unique look to it, and cinematographer Robert D. Yeomen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) highlights scenes with oranges and blues we don’t really see anymore.
Dano and Cusack are both terrific, bringing distinct differences to Wilson, but the two never feel in opposition with one another, instead complimenting one another’s performances. Cusack’s Wilson, in a lot of ways, actually feels younger than Dano’s, as his mental state has deteriorated so much in his later years. A lot of the time he is like a frightened child, while the younger Wilson is a bit more sure of himself, wanting his inner voice to be heard and being berated for it by his brothers and father.
Once Elizabeth Banks’ character falls further for Wilson, she sees the extent of just how poorly he is being taken care of and starts to take action to get Dr. Landy out of his life. A storyline like this could go into conventional, crowd pleasing territory, and it does, but it actually earns it. By allowing us to spend a lot of time with Wilson rather than hitting bookmarked moments, we have seen the toll it has taken on him and we want help for him as much as Banks does. So, when a certain moment comes where the filmmakers want you to say, “Yes!” inside your head while doing a mental fist pump, you don’t feel you’ve been manipulated into going along with it.
I thought I was done with everything music biopic-related. I couldn’t see another movie about a guy with a troubled childhood, getting early success at a young age, reaching his peak, falling into drugs, ruining a relationship, and then starting his life over with a new partner who helps him out of his hole. All of that happens in Wilson’s life, but director Bill Pohland, while navigating familiar territory, does it in a uniquely satisfying way, through two emotionally and narratively pleasing story lines. It goes to show, biopics can be done in a different way and the genre can still be interesting. It also doesn’t hurt when you have two terrific performances leading the way.