2015 / Director. Bill Pohlad.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
Any respectable music critic will tell you that the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds is amongst the greatest records of all time. It’s an incredible musical journey that certainly receives a lot of attention in my house. Not only is it an intricate and deeply personal piece of work, it also marks a defining moment in singer/songwriter Brian Wilson’s life. It was the moment he broke out of his cocoon and evolved into an important artist, free of restraint.
You can imagine my delight when the new Brian Wilson bio-film, LOVE & MERCY, spent a lot of time focused on this chapter in his life. Wilson never quite felt connected with the chart-busting band that had brought him fame and fortune, nor was he comfortable touring the world. His crippling fear of flying kept him grounded and with the permission from the band to stay at home, Wilson began work on something new… something unconventional. And so began the creation of a masterpiece. Locked in a studio with session players, he experimented with sounds, manipulated noises and pushed the envelope. Pet Sounds was essentially a one-man album and upon their return most of the band rejected it.
Director Bill Pohlad splits Wilson’s story in to two important time frames. His musical evolution and early mental health issues are explored with actor Paul Dano playing the young musician. We are given an inside look into the psyche of a genius and the personal struggles that sculpted his process. We watch him create something special and we see him spiral into a perpetual state of madness. The dynamics of the band are also explored with the eventual rift being a significant part of the story. The other portion of the film follows Wilson’s life throughout the 1980s, as a middle-aged man locked behind a dependency of drugs and the ruthless grips of a controlling narcissistic phycologist. John Cusack plays the older Wilson and Paul Giamatti is the notorious Dr Eugene Landy who manipulated and controlled every aspect of Wilson’s life, including the estrangement from his family.
Cusack is the least likely person to play a drug dependant Brian Wilson and I admit that I was sceptical. He bares little resemblance and has a distinct style of acting that I was confident would compromise the story. I was wrong. Cusack is excellent and it wasn’t long before my suspension of disbelief gave way to a natural belief that he personified Wilson. With the support of Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti, Cusack offers one of his best performances to date. Flipping back to the 1960s timeline, Paul Dano also embodies the part. His resemblance to Wilson is striking and his emotional connection with the character is legitimate.
LOVE & MERCY is an honest and revealing examination of a musician’s life. Many bio-films of its type have come and gone but few have stuck. This is certainly a cut above the rest and feels more genuine than most. The eras of Wilson’s life are aesthetically different in their recreation and the two periods are recaptured beautifully. The music is exceptional (naturally) and the inside look into the making of a seminal album is breathtaking. This is one of the year’s best films, without question.