Hidden Gems: Love and Mercy
By Kyle Lee
May 21, 2020

Surfin' USA

2014’s Love & Mercy has the look of a traditional Hollywood biopic, but it’s not. Obviously influenced by Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There biopic of Bob Dylan (and using that movies screenwriter Oren Moverman as well), director Bill Pohlad reigns in that movies more experimental approach in this look at the life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Wilson famously wrote tons of hit pop songs in the early 60’s for The Beach Boys, then got more ambitious, and competitive with The Beatles across the pond, before recording what is widely considered one of the two or three greatest albums ever made in 1966’s Pet Sounds, and then suffering from some kind of psychotic break that took him down a path mostly away from the public eye in the 70’s and 80’s before slowly emerging back again in the 90’s and beyond.

In this movie we follow Brian through two different times in his life, intercut with each other. In the 1960’s, Brian (Paul Dano) is on top of the world, the creative force behind one of the most popular music acts in the world, but getting burnt out on touring and even suffering a panic attack on an airplane. He decides to retire from touring and focus on creating music back home in Los Angeles while the band tours with a replacement for him. He begins writing more complex music, especially after The Beatles release their seminal 1964 album Rubber Soul, which spurs Wilson to another level to try and top. We see Brian’s struggles as he experiments with drugs and butts up against his band mates that don’t care about the more complex music he’s intent on creating and just want to keep churning out hits. We see Brian interact with the physically and verbally abusive father who’d beat him so hard he was mostly deaf in one ear, and most troubling of all, Brian has to deal with the voices and sounds in his head that sometimes make him feel like he’s going crazy.

In the other timeline, we see an older Brian (John Cusack) in the 1980’s meet the former beauty queen Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) at the Cadillac dealership she works at, and who Brian falls for immediately. But this Brian is...off. He seems drugged, he seems odd, and he’s followed around by bodyguards and by a man who announces himself as Brian’s guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Melinda is charmed by Brian and wants to date him, but Landy is so controlling of Brian that Brian admits he hasn’t seen anyone in his family in years, including his daughters, because Gene said it’s a bad idea right now. This is also disturbing when you consider that three of his four band mates in The Beach Boys were family. Melinda sees the verbal and physical abuse that Gene subjects Brian to, as well as constant control and manipulation. She tries to get Brian out, but he feels trapped in the hell of his life.

According to many of the people involved in the making of the movie, they actually had to tone down some of the ways that Brian is treated by Gene because it just seemed too unbelievable and cartoonish, according to co-writer Oren Moverman. Landy’s son has unsurprisingly taken issue with his father portrayal in the movie. Giamatti, one of our most infallible actors, is so full of narcissistic smarm in the role that it would be hard to imagine being around him, much less being controlled by him as Brian is in his fragile state. If I hadn’t known people like that man I might even question that a person could be that narcissistic and manipulative, but they’re out there and they prey on sweet souls like Brian’s. The real Melinda Ledbetter has said that Dr. Landy’s actual treatment of Brian was much worse than what’s shown in the movie.

Elizabeth Banks is wonderful as Melinda, although that shouldn’t be a surprise since she’s always wonderful. But here she has a tremendous depth of empathy and love for Brian that she is able to convey in every scene. Although the Brian she meets is obviously kinda “off”, he’s also kind and interesting and I think she enjoys his lack of filter. When Brian casually talks about how his dad would beat him as a child, you can watch all manner of emotions playing out on Banks’ face, with her eventually just saying “well, shit” in a way that made me laugh but also made my heart swell with how much acceptance and empathy it had in it.

Paul Dano, an actor I don’t often enjoy, is really terrific as the younger Brian. We see him be fun loving and funny and truly brilliant. The way Dano commands the room and uses the session musicians in the studio band like an orchestra during the film’s extended sequences of Brian creating Pet Sounds is really wonderful. Apparently Dano listened to endless recordings of the real Brian making Pet Sounds and then improvised in the studio on the day of filming, with some of his dialog being taken verbatim from the recordings. It’s the film’s best sequence, capturing the rapturous joy of creating in a way that few biopics have ever done. Most musical moments in biopics like this happen on stage, with the performance being the attention grabbing thing. Here, director Bill Pohlad makes the studio sequences the attention grabber. We hear some of the sounds in Brian’s head and watch as he tries to get them created in the studio.

And fitting for a movie about Brian Wilson, I have to mention that the sound design of this movie is really fantastic. The way we’re let into Brian’s head, which at first is fun and exciting and is eventually frightening and unstable, it’s a really compelling use of sound. Pohlad often uses the sound design and mixing as an editing tool to transition from one Brian story to the other, and Dano has said that in some of the scenes in the studio, it starts out as him singing and then transitions (seamlessly) to the real Brian a Wilson singing. How this didn’t win a Sound Design and/or Sound Mixing Oscar is beyond me because this is the movie I would show people who don’t quite understand why sound is so important in filmmaking.

Lastly, John Cusack really goes deep into his performance as the older Brian, a role better than anything he’s had since High Fidelity. Cusack, sadly, hasn’t been the best judge of projects throughout his career and too often has made movies that don’t ask enough of him as an actor. Love & Mercy really shows us again that Cusack is a fantastic actor when he has the right role. He’s able to make Brian fragile without resorting to tics, histrionics, or any other attention grabbing. It’s obvious Brian spends a lot of time in his head. The loving connection he shares with Melinda also allows Cusack to show a lot of vulnerability tied up in various mental illness. When he tells Melinda that he’s living in hell with Dr. Landy and that there’s no way out, it’s truly heartbreaking in Cusack’s hands.

I’m not the hugest Beach Boys fan, and honestly have always felt like Pet Sounds is overrated even if it is great (it’s just not all-time great in my mind), but I still really loved this movie. So don’t be frightened away if you’re not the biggest fan of Brian Wilson’s music, my guess would be that you’ll be (like me) a bigger fan by the end of the movie, and you’ll be able to enjoy what is not just a great biopic, but a terrific movie altogether.