Love & Mercy
Review by KC Carlson
I pretty much knew what I was getting into when I began watching this movie. I own most of the Beach Boys’ (and Brian Wilson’s solo) albums in multiple versions/formats. I have also read at least a dozen books and watched several documentaries about BB/Wilson history — so I already had a pretty good idea what it was going to be about. So my reasons for watching were a) how exactly were they going to attempt to tell this story without it being too depressing (despite the ultimate happy ending) and b) would it actually be an enjoyable viewing experience?
Let me put it to you this way: I first watched the film in a theater several months ago and have been impatiently waiting for it to be released on home video. I just watched it again, twice, yesterday, on DVD. Johanna saw it with me in the theater, and afterwards at dinner, she spent the entire time downloading information about the film, and Brian, and Melinda, and Landy, and, well, she liked it also.
Love & Mercy is a wonderful, heartbreaking, euphorically frustrating, and ultimately celebratory film about a very creatively broken man who, after a long struggle on his own, finds a new partner to help him fight back against all the bullies and dummies and controllers and hangers-on in his life. It’s a challenging film that does not tell its story in a straight linear fashion, with two different actors to portray the central character — musician, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and record producer Brian Wilson. A lot of people who know Brian and/or his work call him a genius. Part of this film is the story of his life, focusing on both the 1960s —- the most creatively rewarding era of his life, writing and recording dozens of radio hits for his band the Beach Boys —- and the 1980s, where a much-broken Brian is starting to fight back to become creative once again.
If You Remember the Sixties, You Weren’t There
Actor Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) plays Brian in the early years as a reluctant genius overwhelmed by adult responsibilities — married at 21 (to a 16-year old), with young daughters and pretty much the sole provider for most of his family and band. Plus, there’s a very complicated relationship with his controlling father Murry (played extremely well by Bill Camp, who nails Murry in just a few crucial scenes), a raging egotist and self-proclaimed “musical genius” and mostly-failed songwriter who attempts to take control of the band, both inside the studio and at home. Brian’s fractured relationship with Murry could actually be a film in itself —- just not this movie.
Dano delivers a remarkably detailed performance in what should be considered an Oscar-worthy role. He even looks very much like young Brian, which really stands out in the scenes that portray real-life incidents that were photographed or filmed in the 1960s (and faithfully recreated for this film).
In the early 1960s, Brian’s life begins an emotional tailspin following his early massive successes, after suffering a nervous breakdown on a plane in 1964 at the height of the Beach Boys’ career. Ultimately, he quit the touring band to stay home and write and produce the records. Brian eventually makes friends outside the Beach Boys with a bunch of sixties free-thinkers and intellectuals (and hangers-on) who expand his thinking about the world, both with their opinions and worldviews and, unfortunately, with their drugs —- and Brian overindulges. Just cannabis initially, which helped him to both alleviate stress and inspire creativity. But in 1966, Brian was introduced to LSD and immediately afterwards suffered his first auditory hallucination, a condition that would persist throughout his life. These hallucinations are one of the most dramatic and disturbing elements of the film and its soundtrack.
Ironically, the drugs would also inspire some beautiful music, most notably the album Pet Sounds, which today is considered one of the best albums ever, although in 1966, it was met with crushing indifference by the band. One member notably told Brian not to “f*ck with the formula” (which became a Beach Boys catch-phrase). It wasn’t well-received by the record label (who instantly created a Beach Boys “Best of” LP to replace it) or the general public, either, and initially it did not sell well.
Undaunted, Brian immediately conceived an even more elaborate and challenging project called SMiLE, which looked to be an incredible return to form after the massive success of its first single, “Good Vibrations” (which was held back from Pet Sounds so Wilson could spend more time perfecting it). The song went straight to #1 in the both the US and UK, quickly becoming the Beach Boys’ first million-selling single.
The film takes time to show both of these in-the-works projects, which is important to demonstrate Brian as a musical genius, as he is in complete control of of his art while in the studio. (The studio musicians, colloquially known as “The Wrecking Crew”, may be the only people in this period of his life who truly recognize his genius, despite many of them being a generation or two older than him.) These are some of the most interesting scenes in the film, as we are witness to Brian’s confidence and control of his vision —- until both the drugs and the lack of support from his band (and family) leads to indecision. Eventually, SMiLE is abandoned, unfinished, as he originally conceived it.
The Death of SMiLE
Since anticipation was high for the SMiLE album, the record company demanded an album, and so a watered-down version of the unfinished work called Smiley Smile was released. It did relatively well sales-wise (due to the inclusion of “Good Vibrations”), but it was creatively considered more of “a bunt instead of a home run”.
(SMiLE would eventually surface, almost complete, in 2011 as the 5-CD box set The SMiLE Sessions, for which Wilson acted as a remote supervisor. It features many of the raw Beach Boys (and Wrecking Crew) recordings from 1966. The first disc is an approximation of what the completed SMiLE might have sounded like. It’s based on a template created in 2004 when Wilson and his new band re-recorded a new version, released as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, based on their successful live tours of the material in 2003. (Darian Sahanaja, Wilson’s musical secretary and performer on that project, was also the supervising musical consultant on Love & Mercy.) A live-in-studio DVD performance of the work was also released in 2005, with an accompanying 2004 documentary, Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE.)
At this point, Brian is so depressed that he withdraws from the world (and his band) for many years, and at one point basically stays in bed for about three years. Which is only partially true, and Brian, always the prankster, actually turns it into a joke in the film.
The Seventies Get No Respect: Make Way for the Eighties
Lots of stuff actually happens in the the 1970s to Brian, not the least of which is that he eventually comes under the treatment of Dr. Eugene (“Gene”) Landy, who decides on a radical treatment. Which is at least partially successful, as Landy does manage to get Brian out of bed and guides him to drop over 100 pounds. But Landy, realizing that his wealthy and “broken” patient is the answer to his dreams, has no plans to completely “cure” Brian, especially when he senses that the Wilson family has more or less abandoned Brian to his “treatment”, yet continues to pay his exorbitant rates. Apparently, it’s a pretty sweet gig treating a famous celebrity millionaire. None of this is really shown in the film, which concentrates on the 1980s, where Brian is at least partially functional (although frequently over-medicated by Landy), but the references are clear enough.
Little did Landy expect to encounter the likes of the very formidable Melinda Ledbetter in 1986. She’s a Cadillac salesperson who meets both Brian and Landy when Brian temporally “escapes” from Landy and his ever-growing phalanx of over-controlling handlers by ducking into the dealership and pretending to buy a car. Despite his illnesses, Brian charms Melinda immediately (in a classic “meet cute” scene), and she’s both horribly perplexed and concerned after “meeting” Landy and Brian’s “bodyguards”, quickly realizing that something is seriously wrong here. But Brian is smitten, and Landy actually allows the two to begin dating, albeit only under constant supervision by either himself or a handler. It doesn’t take long for Melinda to size up the situation of both Landy’s oppressive/aggressive tactics and Brian’s not-quite-there-yet desire to escape from Landy’s control.
This adult, broken-down, over-medicated recluse Brian is portrayed very well by John Cusack (High Fidelity), although, despite the filmmakers’ attempts to convince me otherwise, he doesn’t look much like adult Brian unless you squint. But the difference in looks is crucial to the idea that this adult Brian (with all the things that he’s lived through) is quite literally no longer the same person he was as a young man. All these real-life struggles show in Cusack’s face and portrayal, and despite all that past, it is remarkable how alive Brian is in the scenes with Melinda, played with great charm, caring, and determination by Elizabeth Banks (the Pitch Perfect films, the second of which she also directed).
As the character most viewers know least about going into the film, Banks has the most challenge to bring what could be a two-dimensional part of “the rescuer” to life. She does an excellent job, making Melinda a person in her own right, one who is understandably confused about her feelings and the challenge of getting involved with such a troubled person. Plus, Johanna loved the authentic fashion of the period, down to a perfectly retro nail polish color.
Paul Giamatti multi-dimensionally portrays Dr. Gene Landy, Brian’s therapist/ warden/ tormentor/ (and, oddly, friend). It’s a difficult role, considering Landy’s “relationship” with Brian actually lasted from 1975 to 1992, of which we are seeing only a few years (the latter end) on-screen. It’s easy to speculate that the “real” Landy was as damaged and delusional as Brian was (albeit in a wildly different way) —- which would also be an interesting film in itself, but only if Giamatti played Landy again. The real-life Landy died in 2006 at the age of 71.
This three-way struggle is the heart and soul (or the Love & Mercy, if you will) of the film. Combined with the back-and-forth intercutting of this storyline with the growth and massive success (and failures) of the young Brain, it all weaves into a detailed, compelling, and occasionally frightening film.
Love & Mercy stands up to repeated viewings, as the filmmakers (director Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Owen Moverman) pack the movie with “easter eggs” for Wilson and Beach Boys fans, even faithfully recreating real-life Beach Boys promotional films (they weren’t called videos yet) and classic still photos of Brian and the band. The extensive scenes of Brian working with both the band and the amazing Wrecking Crew musicians were actually shot in the same studios where the original music was recorded in the 1960s, and the actors portraying the musicians onscreen were also musicians themselves.
The film may be a bit challenging for those not familiar with the details of Wilson’s life, but once you get the hang of the time-jumping flash-forwards and flashbacks, it seems like the only reasonable way to portray Wilson’s fractured world. And why it’s practically necessary to have Brian played by two different actors. It really helps the flow of the movie as the different “Brian’s” automatically pinpoint the era that’s being portrayed.
Love & Mercy is now available on both DVD and Blu-ray, as well as on demand. Special Features include
- “A California Story: Creating the Look of Love and Mercy” (11 minutes)
- “A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson” (26 minutes)
- four deleted scenes
- and an Audio Commentary by director/producer Bill Pohlad and executive producer/co-writer Owen Moverman.
The long-delayed Love & Mercy soundtrack is now available as well, featuring a new song by Brian Wilson (“One Kind of Love” from the film). It also includes several of Atticus Ross’ amazing sound collages (from his score) that accompany Brian’s “auditory hallucinations”. Ross had access to all of Brian’s master tapes, so they figure into the mixes. The soundtrack pretty much sticks to music created for the film, so those looking specifically for Beach Boys music might be disappointed. But if you’re already a fan of Brian, you probably already own a couple of BB “Best ofs”, right? There’s only about a million different ones available… (The studio provided a review copy.)