Saturday, July 11, 2015

LOVE & MERCY review

Here are some things about "Love & Mercy" that are essential to know: if you were a fan of the Beach Boys, you will most likely enjoy this movie. If you really, deeply loved the Beach Boys and are aware of Brian Wilson's story, you will love it. I very much enjoy the Beach Boys and had, at least, read about Brian Wilson being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic on Wikipedia. When "Love & Mercy" was announced, it just seemed to make perfect sense. Brian Wilson's story simply deserves to be told. Luckily, director Bill Pohlad has done Wilson's life story justice and has even managed to avoid making this your typical Hollywood biopic.

What makes "Love & Mercy" a satisfying watch is that it doesn't treat Brian Wilson too preciously. Pohlad takes us through two time periods: the mid-60s, starting right before Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) wrote "Pet Sounds", and the mid/late-80s, when Wilson's (played by John Cusack) just starting to put his life back together. Here's a man who has gone his entire life never being in control. First, it was his father forcing his kids into becoming pop stars in the '60s. As Brian Wilson was the leader, he was ragged on the hardest.

The pressures of fame, stardom, writing new music, along with his father breathing down his neck ultimately leads to Brian Wilson having a psychotic breakdown. Fast forward a couple decades, Brian Wilson's on heavy medication and his life is still under heavy control. This time it's Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychotherapist who also acts as Brian's manager, producer, etc. etc. He controls every aspect of Brian's life and Brian accepts it because it's essentially all he knows.

It's not until Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) comes around in his life that Brian is finally able to break free from the controlling doctor. But it's scary to think what could have become of the Beach Boy if his eventual 2nd wife never entered the picture. "Love & Mercy" separates itself from other biopics by being so intensely interested in Brian's psyche.

And the different time periods allows us to see the story from two perspectives: in the '60s, we are intensely viewing Brian's life from his own point of view. In the '80s, it's Melinda's point of view. In the '80s, we share Melinda's shock when we discover that Wilson's life and situation really hasn't improved as much as he claims it has. In the '60s, we come to discover just what made Brian become the person Melinda eventually sees him as. It's an interesting approach, really.

Though intercutting between the time periods kinda shortchanges both stories, director Pohlad and his screenwriters mostly fix this problem by having the time periods directly complement each other. Plus, it's simply wonderful albeit consternating to see young Brian Wilson carefully craft Pet Sounds, "Good Vibrations", and Smile... the latter album was never properly completed until nearly 40 years later. But for those records, we are in the studio with Brian watching him interact with the musicians and later his bandmates. And it's not just a simple recreation of these real-life moments, for each session, we see how Wilson's worsening mental condition begins to affect the way he records his music. It's really fascinating stuff.

At least, that's how I feel. "Love & Mercy" is probably destined to have merely a niche audience, which is a shame. It seems like the Beach Boys never really get the mass respect or acknowledgement that the Beatles or Rolling Stones receive. They had their popularity in the '60s, but there doesn't seem to be a lingering respect for them, at least with the average person. The Beach Boys's best work is right up there with all of their contemporaries and Pet Sounds is one of the greatest pop albums ever made. If not, the best. "Love & Mercy" shows just how painstakingly crafted their very best records are, but it also shows how badly damaging it can be when your whole life revolves around striving for perfection. It also shows just how awful some parents can be, and watching Brian Wilson, I found some eerie similarities between his breakdown and Michael Jackson's.

One last thing to note is the wonderful grainy, "you are there" cinematography that really helps make '60s aspect of the film feel so naturalistic. Doesn't surprise me the film's DP is none other than Bob Yeoman, who has also lensed every single Wes Anderson film up to this point. Furthermore, and this is maybe why I feel the film is ultimately a little too uneven despite me enjoying it overall, Paul Dano gives the performance of his career portraying young Brian Wilson. Dano has always been a weird-looking fella, but the combination of his hair and costuming along with his acting really made it feel as if his character has come to life. I like Paul Dano, but even in his previous great performances, he's never the main standout. In "Love & Mercy," though, he most definitely is, which is kinda to the detriment of the '80s scenes. John Cusack does just fine, but Dano is superb.

Grade: B+

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