What Makes “Love & Mercy” an Unusual Music Biopic?
Conventional biopics condense the events of a popular figure’s life from the early days of their career to the end. They often show the person come from humble beginnings, launch into success, encounter some sort of riff (with their band, with drugs, with money), and come out of it in the end. Along the way, the audience enjoys the figure’s rise while gaining insight into their demons, feeling comforted by the person’s final recovery.
But Love & Mercy (2015) is a different kind of biopic. Although it’s a story about Beach Boys founder and frontman Brian Wilson, it’s not about the Beach Boys. You don’t walk away with a better understanding of the band and the music they made as a group. There’s no rise to fame as they craft their early classics—the likes of “Barbara Ann” and “Surfing USA” and “California Girls”—aside from a brief montage during the credits that ends before the film starts. Love & Mercy is Brian’s story, centered around two substantial times in his life: The mid-1960s (a section played by Paul Dano), during the development of his bipolar schizoaffective disorder when he quit touring to focus on creating something more musically profound than the pop tunes for which he was known, and the 1980s (a section played by John Cusack), when his life was fully operated by Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a domineering Svengali doctor who nearly held Wilson’s hand on the path to self-destruction until he was rescued by the love of car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The details relevant to these two points in time are strong. The blanks in-between stay that way.
As PopMatters explains, “Love & Mercy, though a fine watch through and through, really hammers home the predictable dualities of Wilson’s life. In the ‘60s, he’s controlled by record labels, his bandmates, and his father; in the ‘80s, he’s controlled by Landy. He battles with inner music in one decade and mental illness in the other. Pohlad, along with screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, make damn sure that these well-known aspects of Wilson’s life are put front and center. Anyone already familiar with this story will not leave with much additional insight.”
So what is a biopic that isn’t, in a comprehensive way, biographical? Just a pic? In the case of Love & Mercy (and in the opinion of Brian Wilson), it’s an incredibly accurate and inventive representation of a musical genius and the major artistic and personal events that had the most profound impact on his inner life. In choosing two discrete episodes of Brian’s life to portray, the film puts forward the philosophy that life is not always a linear progression from one important event to the next. Looking back on our lives, we may remember two or three key periods, occurrences, or people as the defining moments of our existence—even if the outside world has a different, more continuous idea of our personas. By using two different actors for Brian, the film underscores this point that a person’s identity may not be continuous from one decade to the next.
Time jumps back and forth between the two segments of his life, attempting to explain how the fragile genius of the young artist became the man in later scenes. Wilson hears The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and is inspired by a desire to not be artistically dated. He sends the others on tour without him and sets off to record “Pet Sounds,” a journey in which the film spends a lot of time and through which Dano’s acting shines. Filmed with a fly-on-the-wall approach, these scens used real session musicians to represent The Wrecking Crew, the legendary group of studio musicians Wilson worked with on the project. They filmed the scenes in the same recording studio Wilson used, allowing Dano to interact largely unscripted with those in the room in an effort to capture the nuances of Wilson’s unique approach to composition.
What this provided is a sense of Wilson’s comprehension of sound. While rogue sounds were the crux of his mental illness, they were also his obsession, fine-tuned and diligently inserted into his songs.
PopMatters continues, “Wilson is shown tinkering with the minutiae of his already tricky compositions. He plucks piano strings with bobby pins. He instructs cello players for several hours on how to play the perfect staccato note. He taps on the walls of a sound studio to figure out how good their ‘vibes’ are. Melody, rhythm, and chord changes are all crucial to Wilson, but his process, at its most elemental, focuses on sounds rather than notes.”
The Huffington Post finds these scenes particularly effective for the film’s unique twist on the traditional biopic, writing, “Two things that are exceedingly difficult to achieve in film are to bring the audience into the minds of geniuses and people with mental illness, and Love & Mercy is able to do both through the performances of Dano and Cusack, which will draw in even those whose knowledge of the Beach Boys doesn’t extend beyond their biggest hits, showing how a pioneering prodigy and legend can be as fragile and yearning as any of us.”
Variety agrees, writing, “As he produces what will eventually become ‘Pet Sounds,’ the film does well to capture Brian’s giddy sense of unmoored creativity as he brings in scores of nontraditional instruments and seemingly illogical arrangements to ‘play the studio’ and one-up his erstwhile competitors Phil Spector and the Beatles. Yet he’s nonetheless nervous of what his bandmates, particularly the literal-minded Mike Love (Jake Abel), will think of his experiments when they return. Worse still, his cruelly disapproving father Murry (Bill Camp) lurks in the wings, and Brian begins to hear scattered voices in his head, a condition first alleviated and later exacerbated by his embrace of LSD.”
These approvals of Dano’s performance do not serve as a knock on Cusack’s part of the film. Rather, they provide the context for the eventuality of Wilson’s 1980s-self. Cusack’s Wilson is heavily drugged, childlike, nervous, and reserved. When he first meets Melinda Ledbetter at the Cadillac dealership where she works, he slips her a business card with the words “Lonely / Frightened / Scared” written on the back. His Wilson is the eventual emergence of a breakdown that started nearly 20 years earlier, beginning with childhood abuse, advanced from guilt over firing his father as the Beach Boys manager, complicated over “Pet Sounds,” “Smile,” drugs, and hallucinations, and completed with a full descent into darkness.
What Love & Mercy ultimately becomes is a love story between Wilson and Ledbetter. She saw the man within the demure, boyish exterior. She took the initiative to remove Landy from his life and get his condition properly diagnosed, deeply improving his life.
Ultimately, Love & Mercy is far from the traditional biopic. Huge Beach Boys fans will find details and fodder they’re sure to geek out over, but the passive fan won’t learn anything new about the music. What they’ll learn about is the man’s most pivotal struggles and the importance of properly recognizing and treating mental illness.