During “Love and Mercy”, the new biopic on the life of Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame, the words of my old maths teacher Mr Green came wafting through the years to me – “An idiosyncrasy is a little madness”, he used to say, “and I have so many they’ve made me what I am today”.
Personal genius has been brilliantly portrayed in film before: “A Beautiful Mind” for maths; “Amadeus” for classical music; and more recently “A Theory of Everything” for cosmology. Behind such genius is often a degree of dysfunction, if not borderline madness.
Here with “Love and Mercy” we get an insight into the creative churning of Wilson’s tortured mind. But it is very much a time-banded view, focused on two key periods of his life: 1966, with Paul Dano (“12 Years a Slave”; “Looper”) playing Wilson, and the 1990’s where Wilson – severely drug-damaged, mentally ill and now played by John Cusack – is being taken for a ride by an unscrupulous and dangerous psychiatrist, Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Playing a key role in his recovery is car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who Wilson desperately latches onto as a drowning man might grab a life-vest.
Whilst the film could be described as a game of two halves, this is not how it is played out. We jump between both eras without warning, which works extremely well in maintaining the interest in the two parallel stories.
In biopic terms, the 60’s segments are probably the more gripping, providing a riveting insight into the production techniques of the iconic “Pet Sounds” album, frequently cited as one of the most innovative and creative albums ever released. The film also features superbly recreated ‘old footage’ (cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman) showing Beach Boy TV slots and video productions. Wilson’s genius is neatly reflected through the admiration of the session musicians: they’d “played with them all” – Sinatra, Presley, Sam Cooke, etc – but Wilson was something else entirely.
Paul Dano is just superb as the troubled youngster, physically and mentally abused by his father (an excellent Bill Camp) and exhibiting mental instability even before the dangers of LSD become evident. His slide into near insanity is brilliantly reflected in an audio soundscape that merges snatched Beach Boy fragments and natural sounds into a cacophony. If Edward Tize and his sound department doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing there is no justice in the world.
In the 90’s segments, Cusack delivers his best performance in years as the older Wilson. And after being rude about Elizabeth Banks’ directing skills for “Pitch Perfect 2”, I feel I have to express my admiration for her portrayal of perplexed astonishment as Melinda, a woman with a mission. Both extremely subtle and utterly enjoyable performances.
In contrast, the excellent Giamatti seems rather over the top as the scheming Landy, although internet articles suggest that it is a scarily accurate portrayal of the degree of control he exerted.
Directed by Bill Pohlad (someone normally found in the production office), it’s difficult to fault such a lovingly crafted film. The pre-credits reference to a ‘building scream’ (I assume relating to the ‘goose-bumpy’ bit of “Good Vibrations”) is never resolved. And (as I rather missed it in the film) the motives for Landy’s extreme actions are a bit obscure (in reality, the Wilson family later discovered he was named as a 70% beneficiary in Wilson’s will). However, this film, which deserved a broader and better-publicised release, stands as a superb tribute to an iconic musician and comes with a “highly recommended” from me.
Fad Rating: FFFF.