Thanks to the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and also Rocket Man, the music biopic is back. But one of the better examples of the genre might have slipped by unnoticed a few years ago: Love & Mercy.
As with Freddie Mercury and Elton John, The Beach Boy’s co-founder and brainchild, Brian Wilson had a troubled life. The songwriter’s persistent battle with depression and mental illness has been well documented, yet the particularly fraught times in Wilson’s life also yielded some of the greatest songs in modern music. It’s to the credit of director Bill Pohlad and his screenwriters that Wilson’s life isn’t given the sanitised treatment in biopic Love & Mercy. Instead this is a quietly engrossing character study of a tortured and fragile genius.
Pohlad is able to achieve this by moving away from the traditional rise and fall biopic narrative, and instead focus on two particularly tumultuous periods in his subject’s life, which he effortlessly slides between as the film progresses. The ascension of the Beach Boys is established via the opening credits montage which beautifully recreates various live performances and album publicity shoots. We’re then introduced to a burnt-out and almost catatonic Wilson in the 1980s (John Cusack). From there we follow his road to possible salvation in the form of a caring car dealer he meets (Elizabeth Banks) while he is chaperoned by his controlling entourage which includes the dubious psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). This is intercut with Wilson’s growth of an artist following the more commercially-minded Beach Boys fare.
Freeing himself from touring commitments, the gentle artist (played in this era by Paul Dano) goes to work with session musicians on crafting the now iconic Pet Sounds album. Witnessing Wilson’s genius via his unorthodox recording styles and seeing his demos bursting into vivid life is pure catnip for fans of the artist and his music. Those studio sessions crackle with authenticity and the incredible soundscape here is the work of David Fincher collaborator Atticus Ross. Ross melds together and reconfigures Wilson’s stunning array of songs, adding texture to the film and helping to cinematically depict the artist’s awe-inspiring, if sometimes torturous, process.
Dano brings his usual brand of empathy and intelligence to the role, and while lacking much of a physical resemblance to Wilson, Cusack is also excellent here, turning in his most assured performance in a long time. That the actor appears to have descended into almost predominately B-movie, direct-to-video territory of late is something of a mystery. Pohlad’s grounded and considered approach to the material which really lifts it above that recent glut of big-screen pop biopics. At the film’s heart, it’s that triumph of adversity through love (and mercy) which rings true for the audience, some of whom won’t necessarily be as familiar with the protagonist as the more outwardly flamboyant and self-assured stage performers like Mercury and John.