Friday, October 2, 2015

Singing Along With "Love & Mercy"

Brian Wilson is singer and songwriter best known for his work with The Beach Boys in the early '60s.  I know many of his songs, but almost nothing about him, which is probably the best way to go into the Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy," one of the most startling and effective profiles of a musician I've ever seen.  It really doesn't matter if you've heard of him or not.

The film is split into two parts, half of it taking place in the 1960s during the height of the Beach Boys' success, and half taking place in the 1980s after Wilson parted ways with the band.  Wilson suffers from mental illness, including auditory hallucinations and manic episodes, that began to manifest in the earlier period, and became full-blown later on.  The film takes advantage of this, relaying the story from Brian's point of view as his muddled mind travels back and forth between his past self (Paul Dano) and present self (John Cusack), not unlike Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time.  In the '60s Wilson struggles to make the more challenging music that he wants, clashing with his fellow band members and his disapproving father (Bill Camp).  In the '80s, under the care of a shady therapist, Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti), he begins a relationship with a car saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).  Both halves are exciting, dramatic, and complement each other beautifully.

It's hard to believe that director Bill Pohlad barely has any directing credits to his name, as his work here is so assured and so impeccably executed.  There's a lot of tricky material involving Brian Wilson's mental state, Melinda slowly piecing together how precarious his situation is, and the constant transitions between recreations of two different eras.  There is a lot of juggling of different tones and moods, lots of places where the film could have gone off the rails, but it doesn't.  Pohlad clearly needs to be directing more movies.  The script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner does a lot of the heavy lifting, efficiently condensing a large portion of Wilson's eventful life into a tense, dramatic narrative. And then there's Atticus Ross's vitally important score, which remixes Wilson's familiar pop music into something that's rich and strange and clearly not a Beach Boys tribute.  Everything in the film feels so carefully considered, helping it to achieve just the right balance between faithfulness to actual events and more freewheeling cinematic dramatization.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the way "Love & Mercy" handles Brian Wilson himself.  The filmmakers are never precious with him, the way that last year's Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking biopics were with their subjects.  Little time is spent convincing us that Wilson was a musical genius worthy of adoration.  Rather, the writing does the legwork to get us to care about him as a human being - and a very imperfect one, before getting into the particulars of his downfall and resurrection.  I think this is the best performance I've seen out of Paul Dano yet.  The younger Wilson's exasperating antics in the recording studio and gradual alienation from his bandmates leave little mystery as to why his success was unsustainable.  Cusack gets the less showy part as the worn-down, middle-aged Wilson, but he's still impressive.  The performance that really caught me off guard, though, was Elizabeth Banks.  What initially seems to be a typical throwaway love interest turns out to be something much more, and Banks delivers.  She's got some great scenes with Cusack and Giamatti that I hope put her in awards contention this year.

It's heartening to see a really ambitious biopic like this being made, something not just ambitious for its subject matter but for the level of the filmmaking.  There are so many little details, so many clever ideas worked in here the way few films bother to try for anymore.  With "Love & Mercy," however, you can tell this is someone's passion project - more than one someone's, probably.  You can tell that they cared about getting it right, and for the right reasons.    And as a result, there's no question that this is the best film of 2015 I've seen so far.

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