Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Written by: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
Based on the life of Brian Wilson
Paul Dano – Brian Past (60s)
John Cusack – Brian Future (80s)
Elizabeth Banks – Melinda Ledbetter
Paul Giamatti – Dr Eugene Landy
Bill Camp – Murray Wilson, Brian’s father
Jake Abel – Mike Love
Brett Davern – Carl Wilson
Kenny Wormald – Dennis Wilson
Graham Rogers – Al Jardine
Max Schneifer- Van Dyke Parks
Erin Darke – Marilyn Wilson
Johnny Sneed – Hal Blaine
Brian Wilson – as himself, singing over closing credits; uncredited pedestrian
NOT The real Beach Boys
I’ve read every book I could find on Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, I have every album by both and I’ve seen Brian solo twice, as well as The Beach Boys. You tend to approach biopics with suspicion when you know the story. Bobby Darin (Beyond The Sea)? Ray Charles (Ray)? Johnny Cash (I Walk The Line)? The Beatles (Backbeat)? I came out of them all praising some bits, but complaining about songs or events they missed. The best biopic for ages has been the three part TV biopic of Cilla Black (Cilla) because Sheridan Smith captured her so well.
Brian Wilson, being very much still with us, is a harder one to do than Darin or Charles. I thought the concept and execution were brilliant. The script divides the story into two time zones. One is the 60s era of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. The other is late 1980s, when Brian was more or less a prisoner of psychiatrist Eugene Landy. Transitions are smooth and clear.
Brian Wilson (Paul Dano)
They tell the pre-story of 1962-1966 in a few sequences to music right at the beginning, slipping the actors into the right clothes with the right guitars, and have them re-enact known incidents … the photo session for the Surfer Girl album carrying a surfboard, playing on stage with Pendleton shirts and Brian’s white Fender bass, standing exactly as on known photos. That establishes the cast as The Beach Boys. Other bits, like Murray Wilson smashing Brian so hard in the right ear that he deafened him, are fleeting later flashbacks.
Paul Dano as 60s Brian
The secret is in the casting. Paul Dano looks just right as the 60s Brian, and we always locate ourselves because John Cusack looks quite different as the 80s Brian. Yet they are believable as a development of the same person. Dano looks like Brian, Cusack doesn’t, but his performance bridges that totally. You accept him as a later version, and he creates a “Brian” for us. Good advice is don’t go for lookalikes in the lead … though it helps with surrounding characters.
60s Brian has to fall deeper into psychosis. 80s Brian is the damaged over-medicated result, completely in the evil thrall of Dr Landy. Cusack’s portrayal was assisted by spending a lot of time with Brian and Melinda Wilson, and listening through SMiLE nightly before bed throughout the production. The soundtrack of the noises and music in Brian’s head makes full use of the cinema surround sound.
Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) selling a Cadillac – she still doesn’t know he’s “Brian Wilson”
The story is of how 80s Brian meets Cadillac car saleswoman, Melinda. He tries to date her, but is constantly shadowed by underlings of Landy. She finally manages to get him out of Landy’s grip, with the assistance of housekeeper Gloria. As the real Melinda is Brian’s wife of the last twenty years, you’d expect her to be portrayed sympathetically and she is.
The monsters intrigue. Paul Giamatti’s Dr Landy is an incredible monster. Wheedling, lying, violent, abusive, the nastiest bastard you ever met and clearly madder than his victim ever was. Murray Wilson, the villain of the biographies, comes out as a monster too – perhaps why the real Brian succumbed to the real Landy. One of the most powerful scenes in the play is where Brian is with Melinda on Landy’s balcony (actually Brian owns the house … Landy lives in the bigger of Brian’s two houses). Brian is hungry, Landy won’t give him food and gets REALLY nasty.
Eugene Landy will let Melinda have a burger, but not Brian
Mike Love? Definitely the villain in some articles and biographies. Assertive, yes, bullying, yes, wrong about Pet Sounds and SMiLE, yes. Not a monster though, and from his own point of view, he was making sensible remarks on lyrics. He comments on the absurdity of ‘sunny down snuff I’m alright’ from Heroes and Villains in the film, a rare departure, as most sources say the Cabin Essence lyric was the actual argument. I can see the switch … Cabin Essence does make a kind of sense. It’s hard to find an isolated line that is internally impenetrable in isolation. ‘Columnated ruins domino’ isn’t mentioned from Surf’s Up, but it could have been.Van Dyke Parks comes across as somewhat precious, as he goes off in a huff over Love’s criticism.
Mike Love gets his due credit for the Good Vibrations lyric too in a scene where Brian is playing it, imploring Mike Love for a lyric. Of course, Mike Love and Brian Wilson toured together in 2014. He’s living, as is Al Jardine. I suspect the gloves couldn’t entirely come off in that one.
Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) … a towering performance
Carl and Brian look like brothers (to each other at least). What confused me is this Carl was quite short, where the real Carl was tall and quite hefty, the most like Brian at one time. I found it hard early on to distinguish which was Dennis and which was Carl. And we know Al Jardine is very short, but he did look right. Carl was the next most-talented Beach Boy. I’m not sure he gets his due … Brian chose Carl to do the lead voice on both God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. It was Carl who signed the papers that rescued him from Dr Landy, and it was Carl who carried the torch through the decade the movie skips … the 1970s. Just listen to Feel Flows from Surf’s Up. Carl sings and plays every instrument except drums. But there’s good reason. The 80s has to focus on Brian, Melinda and Landy. There’s little music in it. If they had bought the other 80s Beach Boys into that time sequence, they would have had to recast every one of them, and it would have confused, and also detracted from our focus on Cusack’s Brian.
The attention to musical detail was high. They mixed Paul Dano singing with original tapes of Brian. I loved the building (and so dissection) of God Only Knows. In the sessions, Carol Kaye on electric bass guitar, has a double bass player behind her, a Brian Wilson innovation. The different keys discussion for the two basses is from reality. So is Brian singing the French Horn part. Session drummer Hal Blaine plays himself according to the IMDB credits, remarkably given the 50 years since the events of 1966. He was born in 1929. So 85? He must appear elsewhere, because Johnny Sneed played the main role of Hal Blaine, giving Brian friendly encouragement. We see the Fire recordings with helmets, we see dogs in the sand tray in which Brian placed his grand piano.
Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and Brian (John Cusack)
I found it a moving portrayal, with the four leads (Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti) so good I can’t think of a criticism. Even my Beach Boys fanaticism failed to find fault factually, and I believe in them as portrayed. Great script. Great research.
It’s centred on a living person, and I thought a fine moment was the use of Wouldn’t It Be Nice as Brian and Melinda finally reconnect, acting silently to the music in a California street, then as the credits start to roll, we cut to inset concert footage of the real Brian Wilson singing Love and Mercy. I’ve seen him do it. Magic.
Toppermost: The Beach Boys – I’m one of three contributors.