There’s a dryness to the musical biopic. They’ll noodle through the same beats: childhood, fame, decline, and were they actually a bastard? You can see the results of this approach everywhere, often pipped for multiple Academy Award supporting/actor nominations- lord knows, the performances in these things are often the highlight. Walk the Line, Get on Up, and I Saw the Light have central players that try their best with the dry (disastrous, in Light’s case) material they’re given.
So what if something different were attempted? What if, instead of grafting the musician’s legacy onto the husk of dull hagiography, there was a film that tried to capture the person in their context? Enter Love & Mercy.
The first scenes are a statement of this intent. Brian Wilson, the subject, talks to himself about his ability, and fear of losing it. It’s jarring, earnest admiration of musicality casually superseding the troubled individual stereotype. The next scene complements this: a slow fade-in on an ear, with an ethereal soundscape of The Beach Boys’ hits. Taken as a pair, they place the viewer somewhere between the music and its creator, on the cusp of either.
Unconventionality runs throughout. Split between the sun-soaked 1960s and washed-out 1980s, Wilson’s story revolves around two states, played as a young man by Paul Dano, and an older one by John Cusack. Wilson being the core, the film revolves around the man, and these performances. His ‘60s scenes are the heart of the movie. Often shot in warm 16mm, they key in on Wilson’s early mental illness and troubled band-relationships, all the while circling around the music he keeps creating, gently residing in its peppy, laid-back energy. And what music- in this period, the recording sessions are the highlights. The camera snakes and glides through the studios with a cinema-verité, quasi-documentary style; the thing feels alive, buzzing in the painstaking act of piecemeal creation.
The ‘80s makes a cool counterpoint. A slower affair, it focuses on Wilson’s attempts to escape his malicious psychiatrist, while moving past his earlier success. It’s got an icier palette, California somehow more washed-out. Likewise, the tone is more inquisitive about his person, rather than the music. This gestures towards conventional biopics; but placed in concert with the unwieldy ‘60s, it carries an air of sobriety, both a yearning for, and farewell to, a time and mood long gone. Like the first scenes, taken as a pair, these periods have a bond that contextualises their differences: the Wilson of this film is alive in his music.
“a cinema-verité, quasi-documentary style”
A brief word on the central performances. Love & Mercy boasts two variations on the theme, Dano and Cusack playing almost entirely-different characters. Dano is fantastic, more than living up to the complexity of the figure. He oscillates between extreme highs and lows, with a boyish charm that can morph quickly into zaniness, considered enquiry, or abject breakdown. Cusack is more subdued; it’s a less-developed role, Wilson at this stage subdued by heavy medication. Like much of the ‘80s portion, Cusack has an un-dynamic manner, relying on slow affectation and numbness.
It’s not all great, then. Cusack’s the weak link to Dano, not quite matching the assured-yet-manic rhythms of his performance. Other flaws bar it from greatness; the 1960s supporting cast fails to make much of an impression- the focus on Wilson is here near-total. Similarly, the more-prominent 1980s players are cast in broad strokes. Paul Giamatti gluts himself on the scenery as Wilson’s psychiatrist, while Elizabeth Banks works hard to add nuance to a character that, regrettably, boils down to a love-interest/plot-mover. On a larger level, while providing necessary contrast, the ‘80s scenes are simply less fun– although it must be noted that their aforementioned yearning and emotional climaxes are pleasantly affecting.
“It’s jarring, earnest admiration of musicality casually superseding the troubled individual stereotype”
Despite this, it’s a film that tries something different. What sticks in my mind is the boldness of the endeavour; to talk back to the creator’s relationship to music, rather than indulge mawkish abstractions of individual and genius. It’s a shame that the film seems to have been washed away in the years since its release. More than standing above its company, its flaws seem small in comparison to what it sets out to do.bookmark me