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Love & Mercy
(2014)

Well here’s a surprise: a decent biopic. Probably because Love & Mercy isn’t slavishly fuelled by a sense of its own importance, and because it stresses the emotional life rather than the itemised history of its protagonist. Who is Brian Wilson, in his 20s and 40s, portrayed by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. Which was even more of a surprise, as I didn’t spend the duration possessed with the urge to thump Dano, who generally is just that kind of performer (and, I’m not a violent man, Mr Fawlty).


So the skill of Bill Pohlad (more usually a producer; this is his sophomore directing gig) is not to be underestimated in inducing me to empathise with Dano-Brian. He also pulls of the trick, with writers Oren Moverman (credited with cracking the story, he was in line to direct until realising Pohlad had such a clear vision, persuading him to step up to the megaphone) and Michael A Lerner, of making me invested in the genius of Wilson. Not that I don’t recognise the genius of specific Beach Boys songs, but I’ve never had the urge to sit down and listen to an entire album; for me, they just don’t hold that kind of allure.


The gradual disintegration of Dano-Brian, striving for ever-purer creative expression in the face of doubts about performing, reluctance on his fellow band members’ parts to go with his outré fare (Jake Abel’s Mike Love being most vocal), and a father from whom he seeks acknowledgement from but who is simultaneously entirely poisonous (Bill Camp, brazenly unsympathetic), while consuming substances that aren’t exactly helping his fragile psyche, makes for a compelling compendium signalling imminent mental collapse, particularly when spliced by the fractured time frames, as we shunt back and forth over two decades. For once, Dano’s naturally wan, insipidly-minded demeanour meshes with a sympathetic character, and alchemy ensues.


Cusack-Brian is, in contrast, solid rather than spectacular. Ironic, as I always rather rated Cusack, at least until he hooked up with Nic Cage and Val Kilmer’s tax adviser and started making any shit, anytime, anywhere. I shouldn’t be surprised that the performance is merely competent, as Cusack has never been exactly an immersive actor; he is very much always himself playing his subject. So, while we perceive Wilson’s distant, little boy lost, he never disappears into the role. This actually doesn’t matter too much, because while the ‘60s passages are very much about Brian being centre stage, his passivity in the later phase requires someone else to take the lead: Elizabeth Banks as romantic partner and saviour Melinda Ledbetter.


Melinda locks horns with Brian’s suffocating, vainglorious “Dr” Eugene Landy, a classic case of the psycho prescribing psychotics, in a typically excessive, loathsome, two-dimensional, bug-eyed turn from Paul Giamatti. Which is to say, he’s very good, but I suspect I’m suffering a wee bit of Giamatti fatigue. I see him everywhere, walking around like normal people, in everything. The ‘80s sequence is more traditional in structure perhaps, providing as it does the essential catharsis, but this also makes it a hands-down winner purely in emotional stakes.
          
                                 
It would have been easy for Pohlad to get carried away with the ‘60s nostalgia and namedropping (“Paul McCartney said God only knows is the best song ever written”), but rather than obvious recreations, the best moments find Brian striking sparks off his session musicians (“Well, if you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s not a mistake anymore”) and one of them comparing him to other greats they’ve worked with (“Phil’s got nothing on you” of Spector). That said, Wes Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman does a standout job evoking the era and its colours, man, its colours.


Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Love & Mercy is that it doesn’t need to be about Brian Wilson for it to work. It fosters enough empathic sustenance that the simple message “You need to find a way to get back to yourself” would hold true even if the lead character had been a nobody. Maybe that’s the key to a good biopic; get to the heart of the individual, and the rest will follow.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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