Love and Mercy separates itself from its crowded genre even before the opening credits. The opening itself is a witty, sharp establishing montage in which this tale about the Beach Boys breezily jumps through the kind of performance and adulation vision that can burden other musical biopics, which tend to lurch from concert or studio set pieces to your standard musical genius abusing or ignoring his wife and family.
Before the credits, Bill Pohlad’s unconventional look at the life of Brian Wilson establishes this film’s modus operandi. As it should be, it is about the music.
A close-up of Brian Wilson’s ear is accompanied by the whizzing sounds and inspirations in Wilson’s mind and the film does its darnedest throughout to try to convey the inspiration driving Wilson’s genius from within. Pohlad is aided immeasurably by composer Atticus Ross, who won an Academy Award with Trent Reznor for their work on The Social Network, and whose collages are just perfect for this exploration of Wilson.
Not that it’s hard to stand out among musical biopics right now. A number of recent dramatisations haven’t even made it to cinemas, including a not-so-bad look at James Brown, Get On Up, and the troubled film about Jimi Hendrix, Jimi: All is by My Side. Then there are coming films about Janis Joplin, Hank Williams ( I Saw the Light) and Miles Davis ( Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle).
So let’s savour Love and Mercy, which is two films. The first, featuring Paul Dano as a young Wilson telling the band to tour without him as he stays home to develop what would become the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds, is more effective, for two reasons.
First, Dano depicts a more affecting, gentle character than John Cusack’s weirder 1980s Wilson. Also, Dano has the better part of the script, while Cusack’s post-breakdown Wilson is a shell of a man who strikes a sweet friendship with a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda) while being abused by his psychologist and legal guardian, Paul Giamatti’s Eugene Landy. It is Cusack’s best role for some time, although Dano is allowed to show a more enticing young man.
But the sound is the thing and Love and Mercy gets it gloriously right. The attention to detail in the genesis of Pet Sounds is intoxicating, even to someone who doesn’t consider himself a particular fan of the seminal album. As Wilson assembles session musicians and their unlikely instruments for the recording, one can’t help but be reminded of just how revolutionary the album turned out to be. And sadly, how it marked an individual’s early zenith.
Love and Mercy (M, Icon, 159min, $39.95) is a musically inventive tribute to a genius that is a credit to the genre. Who knew a biopic about a muso needed to be so aurally savvy?