I am very biased when it comes to the Beach Boys. I discovered their music when I was very young and went to see them in concert when I was 10 years old as the first concert I really wanted to attend. It happened to be at a venue with a hotel attached and the next morning I was up very early and went down to play Pac-Man before my parents woke up. It was a sit-down machine that had controls on both sides and a guy came up and asked if he could play, he put down a bunch of quarters and I looked up and noticed it was Bruce Johnston, the guy that replaced Brian. After a bit some of the other guys came to get Bruce and asked how I liked the show. I was totally in awe.
While I have never had a chance to meet Brian Wilson his music has always had an impact on my life. I loved the good-times songs but I also loved the Pet Sounds sound just as much as I loved the Beatles from an early age. I had read about Brian's breakdown and bits and pieces of the story on his climb out of depression into a situation that might have been even worse with Dr. Euguene Landy controlling his life and over-medicating him.
This movie covers the dark, trying times of Brian Wilson interweaving two periods of his life together with excellent results. Paul Dano gives an incredible look into the young Brian and John Cusak exceeded my expectations as the older Brian. You get to see scenes of Brian in the recording studio that are nothing short of breathtaking as you get an idea of what his process was of getting the music out of his head and onto magnetic tape.
The story presented, I believe, does an excellent job of portraying Brian's descent into his mental issues as a young man without going over the top. Some people may find a lot of the movie hard to watch as so much of the Beach Boys music is about happy sun-filled days, girls and fast cars and Brian's life was anything but happy and carefree. Paul Giamatti portrays Dr. Landy in such a way that you know he's the bad guy from the moment he walks onto the screen.
Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, the woman that Brian would fall in love with and the one that would be instrumental at getting him out of the controlling situation he was in. It is through her eyes we see the older Brian and get perspective on what he has had to endure.
There are scenes that will make you cringe as you watch them with Brian being abused both verbally and physically by his father and then Dr. Landy, the man he thought was trying to help him. When John Cusak, as the older Brian, tells the story of how his hearing in one ear is almost gone because his dad used to hit him so hard in such a matter-of-fact way it is truly heartbreaking. The movie ends with concert footage of Brian Wilson from the present day singing his song "Love and Mercy" which was the perfect way to end it.
Overall I thought this was a near-perfect movie about Brian Wilson. If you're looking for a movie full of girls and beach scenes you'll want to look elsewhere but if you are willing to delve into the darker side of a musical genius you will be rewarded.
After seeing this movie all I wanted to do was send some good thoughts and vibrations out to Brian Wilson. I doubt he'll ever read this review but on the off chance I just want to say thank you, brother, for the music and we love you!
Bob Dylan on Brian Wilson: "That ear — I mean, Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian." (Newsweek, 1997)
Bill Pohlad's "Love & Mercy" is a loving cinematic poem to Brian Wilson, leader of the legendary Beach Boys. Breaking free of the conventional tropes that hamstring most biopics about popular artists; "Love & Mercy" shows us his creative process and takes us on a trip through Wilson’s cerebral hemispheres.
"Music is God's voice", Brian Wilson once said. And the sounds in this film are indeed heavenly. If you're a devotee of Brian Wilson and his music and know the backstory, "Love & Mercy" is something of a religious experience. I cannot imagine a better tribute to such an important artist. The film is so exquisitely crafted that any small blemish or wrong note gets lost in the whole texture.
Paul Dano and John Cusack give tour de force performances as 'Brian Past' (1960s) and 'Brian Future' (1980s), respectively. Dano, particularly, embodies his portrayal of the younger Wilson in a way that is all-consuming. Cusack presents the older Wilson as a man who has been through some deep valleys. Both performances harmonize to create a unique portrait.
The film deftly juxtaposes both periods in Brian Wilson's life hinting at the harrowing missing years, in between. Oren Moverman's screenplay is finely crafted so that the story balances 'Brian Past' as he is fracturing just as 'Brian Future' is putting it all back together again. Director Pohlad's recreation of the "Pet Sounds" and "SMiLE" sessions is some of the most magical cinema I have maybe seen, specifically in the biopic genre.
The supporting performances are strong, as well; featuring Elizabeth Banks as Brian's future wife Melinda and Paul Giamatti as the Svengali-like psychotherapist Dr. Euguene Landy. Melinda slowly realizes the man she meets in the films’ opening scene, while selling him a Cadillac, is a damaged soul. But she is drawn into his world, presumably because of his tenderness and honesty. She also acts as the audiences’ conduit into the story of 'Brian Future', allowing us to view that portion of the story through the eyes of an active bystander.
Also of note is the enveloping photography of DP Robert Yeoman. His camera covers the 1965/66 "Pet Sounds" sessions in a documentary-like fashion. We feel as though we are eavesdropping on the creative process at work. Contrast that with the cool pastel hues of the 1980s sequences and it's clear to see why director Bill Pohlad chose this particular cinematographer. Yeoman brings the same care and sensibility shown in the films he has shot for Wes Anderson to "Love & Mercy".
Whether being domineered by his father Murry, his cousin Mike Love or later Dr. Landy, Brian Wilson has always been “people-pleaser” as his mother Audree once said. In both the film and in real life, it’s comforting to know that the man that gave us all some of the best popular music in the second half of the 20th century while never fully being content, now feels the mercy and the love.
This is an exceptional film.
PRODUCTION NOTES —
The production of LOVE & MERCY actually has a fairly long and interesting road. As early as 1988 a biopic about Brian Wilson was in the works. That of course is the same year that Brian released his eponymous solo debut. It also coincides, at least partially, with the era depicted in “Brian Future” scenes in the released film.
In 1988, a deal was nearly inked that would have seen William Hurt playing Brian Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss playing Dr. Eugene Landy. This film was to have also been titled “Love & Mercy” and would have focused on the therapeutic relationship between Wilson and Landy. There were other attempts to bring Brian’s story to the big screen including a project in the late 90s that was to have Jeff Bridges playing Wilson.
Beginning in or around 2007 at the now defunct Warner Independent Pictures a script began being prepped reportedly titled “Heroes and Villains”. According to “Love & Mercy” director Bill Pohlad, sometime around 2010 the production team of Claire Rudnick Polstein and John Wells approached him to help the project come to fruition. Pohlad states that at the time he passed but left the door open saying ‘if you can’t make it happen with what you’ve got, come back and we’ll approach it differently’. Pohlad has been quoted as saying that the “Heroes and Villains” script was lacking.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Polstein and Wells again approached Pohlad to direct and write a film about Brian Wilson. Pohlad has stated he was at first hesitant to direct another film since his first foray in the director’s chair wasn’t as satisfactory as he would have liked. Pohlad had the inspired choice of asking screenwriter Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There” and “Rampart”) to take a swing at penning a Wilson biopic. Michael A. Lerner, who penned the "Heroes and Villains" screenplay, received a screenwriting credit for "Love & Mercy".
Initially, there were to be three eras featured in “Love & Mercy”: the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. An interesting tidbit is that at one stage when the "1970s Brian” was being developed, Philip Seymour Hoffman was discussed as a possible actor to fill that role. Perhaps wisely, the filmmakers chose to go a different direction. And, as the project moved into pre-production, it reportedly became evident that there was a need to focus the story more on the 1960s (Pet Sounds Sessions, particularly) and 1980s (with Landy). The finished product relegates the "1970s Brian" to two independent shots of a morbidly obese Wilson (played by an un-credited actor) in bed during that harrowing decade.
Director Pohlad has mentioned in several interviews that the choice of Paul Dano was almost immediate. He had him in mind from the early stages of the project to play the younger Brian Wilson. The choice of John Cusack came a bit later on, as Pohlad mentions several times in print that he was inspired to seek Cusack out after re-watching the Don Was documentary about Brian Wilson “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from 1995.
Though the trend in Hollywood for the last ten years or so has been to shoot movies digitally, both Bill Pohlad and Robert Yeoman wisely chose to shoot "Love & Mercy" on 35mm film; even going so far to use 16mm and Super8 to capture some of the moments shown in the films' opening credit sequence. The overall look and authenticity of the finished product is a direct result of those inspired production flourishes.
According to screenwriter Oren Moverman, the finished film originally ran as long as 2 hours and 20 minutes and was trimmed to slightly over 2 hours prior to the debut at the Toronto International Film Festivall (TIFF) in September 2014. Additional edits were made prior to the theatrical release on June 5th, 2015.
Four of the scenes that were excised from “Love & Mercy” can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray as well as the digital version available for purchase from numerous outlets. Also included is an excellent audio commentary featuring director Bill Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman production insights.
The films’ soundtrack with its aural soundscapes, produced by Atticus Ross, was eventually released after a slight delay on September 18th, 2015.
***THIS REVIEW / PRODUCTION NOTES WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON July 23rd, 2015. SUBSEQUENT EDITS HAVE BEEN MADE***