A wonderfully innervating cure for the common musical biopic, Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” vibrantly illuminates two major breakthroughs — one artistic, one personal — in the life of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Certainly more conventional than Todd Haynes’ fractured Bob Dylan collage “I’m Not There,” but miles removed from the cookie-cutter approach taken by so many other rock bios, this finely crafted split portrait should win over music nerds skeptical of yet another complicated life being reduced to a series of highlight-reel moments, and provided more mainstream auds are willing to take the trip, Paul Dano and John Cusack’s expert performances should attract an appreciative reception.
Alternating back and forth in time, Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner eschew a long-winded biographical approach in favor of two temporally specific parallel narratives. In one, roughly covering the period from 1965-68, Dano plays Wilson as he resigns from touring, masterminds one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest masterpieces, and finds his grip on reality slowly loosening. In the second, set in the 1980s, Cusack shows us Wilson as a broken, confused man under the pharmacological and legal thrall of manipulative therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), finding unlikely love with a Cadillac dealer named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who will later become his second wife.
Following a very brief, unfussy montage of the Beach Boys’ rise to ‘60s pop superpowers, we see Dano’s Wilson, still boyish enough to pass for a standard teen idol, suffer a panic attack on a flight. Deciding to bow out of the group’s upcoming Japanese tour, he sets up shop in a recording studio alongside L.A. session masters the Wrecking Crew, with ambitions to record nothing less than “the greatest album ever made.”
As he produces what will eventually become “Pet Sounds,” the film does well to capture Brian’s giddy sense of unmoored creativity as he brings in scores of nontraditional instruments and seemingly illogical arrangements to “play the studio” and one-up his erstwhile competitors Phil Spector and the Beatles. Yet he’s nonetheless nervous of what his bandmates, particularly the literal-minded Mike Love (Jake Abel), will think of his experiments when they return. Worse still, his cruelly disapproving father Murry (Bill Camp) lurks in the wings, and Brian begins to hear scattered voices in his head, a condition first alleviated and later exacerbated by his embrace of LSD.
Inhabiting a far different scene, Cusack’s fortysomething Brian dodders around his beachfront mansion under the ever-watchful eye of Landy and his “bodyguards,” who have ordered Wilson to cut all contact with his family and even micromanage his diet. Heavily medicated to treat what Landy had diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, Wilson’s speech has been rendered into a series of seeming non sequiturs, yet Melinda seems to immediately understand him, recognizing a gentle soul desperate for connection, who retains a certain childlike trust despite years of exploitation.
On an aesthetic level, the two performances don’t really match. Dano looks, moves and talks with remarkable fidelity, his bushy bangs falling across his watery eyes, speaking softly through his chin whenever he isn’t thrusting his falsetto into the upper registers or hollering in moments of inspiration. Cusack hardly does any of these things and, aside from his loosely buttoned shirts and hands held rigidly downward, looks almost nothing like his real-life counterpart. Yet somehow this disconnect works, and Cusack’s avoidance of mimicry suggests a man who has lost nearly all lingering ties to the young man he once was.
Banks has the least showy of the film’s primary roles, but she does admirably subtle work with it nonetheless. In her first scene with Wilson, when their relationship is still merely that of customer and saleswoman, Brian begins to share all sorts of unprompted details about his jogging habits and the recent death of his brother Dennis, and Banks’ face registers a number of competing emotions, from alarm to compassion, all without dropping her professional smile. Gradually the two become a couple, much to Landy’s dismay. “I’m giving you unprecedented access here,” he says while attempting to lay insane ground rules for their relationship, and Melinda is later driven to help emancipate Brian from his cracked guardian.
Scenes of the elder Wilson also fill in a number of biographical details that the film’s nontraditional structure misses. In particular, Cusack’s dispassionate analysis of the sounds made by traditional spanking, versus those made by the beatings his father used to administer to him, is effectively horrifying.
Though best known for his long career as producer (“The Tree of Life” and “12 Years a Slave”), second-time-director Pohlad is quite confident behind the camera, using a number of potentially indulgent techniques to rigidly purposeful ends. For one, Wilson rarely occupies the center of the frame, lingering just slightly to the left or right, save for the rare moments when he attains emotional equilibrium. A 360-degree pan around a recording studio during the “Good Vibrations” sessions — with Wilson brothers Carl and Dennis idly tuning their instruments, cousin Love stewing in the control booth, and Brian all but hovering over two cellists — is wonderfully executed. Studio arguments between Love and Wilson are shot much in the style of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be,” and a series of two-shots depict a contentious band meeting with clear yet unforced symbolism — in one shot, the assembled Beach Boys sit still by the shallow end of a swimming pool, their feet dipped in the water; in the reverse angle, Brian struggles to remain afloat in the deep end, his hair drenched and ragged.
Beach Boys fans will surely geek out on the “Pet Sounds” scenes, which see Wilson fussing over just the right amount of bobby pins to lay across the piano strings for the “You Still Believe in Me” intro, as well as the brief glimpses of Van Dyke Parks and Tony Asher. Photography is sharp, and ace editing eases the tensions between the two narratives, yet the real hero of the below-the-line crew is probably sound mixer Edward Tise, who creates elaborate mosaics of the sounds of silverware on porcelain, or the low thud of music bleeding through a soundproof room. (Indeed, the film’s depictions of drug hallucinations and psychological breakdowns are almost all sonically driven.) Atticus Ross’ haunting score reincorporates snatches of the Beach Boys’ effervescent melodies into something that sounds intriguingly similar to Animal Collective.