Love and Mercy, film review: Two Wilsons and lots of good vibrations

A perfectly cast Dano plays the younger Wilson with a winning mix of confidence and anxiety

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Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s ingenious biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, approaches its subject from a very unusual direction... ear-first. We learn right from the outset that Wilson’s most intense experiences are aural ones. One of its first shots is a huge close-up of Wilson’s ear. The names of his most famous works (Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations”) reinforce the sense that his inspiration comes from listening.

Pohlad and his screenwriters don’t just give us one Brian Wilson. This is a film delivered to us stereophonically, from two speakers: Brian-Past (Paul Dano) and Brian-Future (John Cusack). Dano plays Brian in his 1960s pomp. Cusack is the tormented figure he has turned into during the 1980s, under the very dubious influence of his legal guardian and therapist, Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The idea of having a pair of actors who don’t even look very much alike in the same role may sound tricksy and confusing but it works remarkably well. Dano is perfectly cast as the younger Brian. As he showed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, he excels at capturing the quirks of oddball visionaries. He plays Brian as a sweet-natured mystic but one with a competitive side. It is not so much money and record sales that drive him but an intense artistic ambition. “I can take it further” is his motto as he attempts to out-do such rivals as The Beatles or Phil Spector. Dano plays him with a winning mix of confidence and anxiety. There are some brilliant scenes of him in the recording studios, pushing the hardbitten session musicians, who are in awe of him, to come up with ever more offbeat ideas.

Outside the studio, Dano’s Brian has to deal with the grumbles of other band-members, who want to go on having hit records with the “California sound”. They become exasperated when he starts writing “pocket symphonies to God” instead of hit songs celebrating hedonism, youth and surfing. His cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), co-founder of the band, is the most aggressive in trying to reel Brian in.

The growing separation between Brian and the rest of the Beach Boys is signalled first when they go on a Japanese tour without him and then, in comical fashion, when they take up different positions in a swimming pool during  a discussion about the band’s future. Brian, inevitably, is in the deep end and the others can’t manage to find their footing there. They’re too shallow for that.

Brian has a very difficult relationship with his father Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), a musician and producer but one with a thick skin and a boorish, mercenary manner. He memorably dismisses Brian’s more adventurous compositions as “wishy washy”. Brian claims to have lost 96 per cent of his hearing in one ear because of being slapped around by his father – but hints that this was what made him such an idiosyncratic and brilliant songwriter. If his hearing had been sharper and his father kinder, his genius might have been blunted.

One of the great strengths of Love & Mercy is that it refuses to be straitjacketed by chronology. Pohlad doesn’t feel an obligation to take us through his subject’s childhood or to fill in all the missing blanks in the story. Key biographical incidents are referred to only in passing. For example, rather than go into morbid detail about the death of Brian’s brother, the incident is simply referred to in a line of dialogue.

Nor does Pohlad pack the soundtrack with Beach Boys hits in the mindless jukebox fashion that a more conventional biopic might have done. His interest is as much in how the music was constructed as in the music itself.

Pohlad cross-cuts between events in the lives of Brian-Past and Brian-Future. Somewhere along the way, the character has had a disastrous breakdown; we learn that he spent more than three years in bed. Brian-Future is a damaged figure but Cusack refuses to play him simply as a victim: he brings a sly, flirtatious humour to the role. The film deals with his burgeoning love affair with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in a remarkably gentle and tender fashion. Banks is best known for playing the vain and over-dressed Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games franchise. Here, she is in a far more subtle and affecting groove as the loyal, strong-willed woman won over by Brian’s Forrest Gump-like naiveté.

The out-and-out villain is Landy, played by Giamatti like a cross between Austin Powers and Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse. “He is my legal guardian, he can do things to me,” Brian whispers in terror of the manipulative Landy, who tries to control every aspect of his existence, from his diet to his romantic life, and feeds him huge quantities of drugs to keep him pliant.

Love & Mercy takes us to places that more traditional biopics or rock docs could not reach. Pohlad’s greatest service to his subject is to foreground the music. He is drawing our attention to the circumstances in which Brian Wilson wrote his celestial harmonies. At the same time, he preserves Brian’s mystique. (It really is a case of “God Only Knows” where such strange and distinctive music came from.)

The switches between Dano and Cusack are seamless. Their portrayals of Brian complement each other although both approach their roles in different ways. Pohlad produced Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life and you can sniff Malick’s influence in some of the film’s more impressionistic visual sequences. At the same time, the film is surprisingly down to earth. Pohlad makes it clear that Brian worked very hard to translate the sounds he heard in his head into the music that he and The Beach Boys recorded. For all its outlandish storytelling conceits, this is almost certainly the most authentic account of its subject that anyone has yet given us.

Bill Pohlad, 120 mins Starring: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack,  Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti