Review: Love & Mercy – A feeling, if savoury, take on psychosis and the creative process
WITH the 50th anniversary reunion tour of The (remaining) Beach Boys finally culminating in 2014, after a few years of organisational disputes between Brian Wilson and Mike Love, it was perhaps inevitable that a picture would follow hot on its tail, especially given how seminal and iconic the band have proven to the music scene since their 60s heyday. Brian Wilson in particular – the film’s principle subject – has been widely accredited for his vital contribution to the production of pop music, with albums like Pet Sounds helping to elevate a popular genre into an art form and decentralising New York’s then-monopoly on the industry in the States.
Love & Mercy had actually been in the works as far back as 1988, the year Wilson released his eponymous solo album after nearly a decade of absence from the studio, following years of substance abuse and mental illness. Wilson would then find his problems compounded by medically unorthodox and inappropriate treatment under personal psychotherapist Eugene Landy, who, according to accounts, compelled and manipulated Wilson into producing the initial pieces on the record against his will and in the absence of Wilson’s sound reasoning.
Landy would subsequently be convicted of malpractice and had his therapy license revoked by the state of California in 1992. The initial project, then, was almost dauntingly close to the events depicted; given that legal disputes with Landy were ongoing, it’s unsurprising that the film would languish in development hell. Director Bill Pohlad – taking Love and Mercy’s helm after finding himself obsessed with a boxset of The Pet Sound Sessions (1979) – establishes early on his desire to make an immersive character study into Brian Wilson and his creative process, rather than a comprehensive history or standard biopic.
The main strength of the film comes in the two very strong spearheading performances from John Cussack and Paul Dano as old and young Brian respectively, effectively collaborating to produce a singular portrayal of Wilson at two very different stages of his life, at once recognisable yet distinct. Dano is particularly engaging as the young artist in his prime, fuelled by hope and simple pleasure in his music, yet harbouring all the deep-set anxieties and disorders which would grow to plague his professional, family and personal life.
Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter also deserves some praise for helping to drive a narrative which could have been pretty dreary had it depended solely on Cusack’s disorientated action. Though it must be said that although Banks herself puts in a very solid performance as Brian’s wife-to-be – sympathetic, intrigued and alarmed by Brian and his sinking state of mind – her character is rarely explored beyond her relationship to Brian in his later life, often making her come across rather too angelic and saintly.
L&M also seems to shirk, up to a point, Brian’s own hand in substance abuse. After taking his first hit of LSD, early on in the film, it subsequently becomes increasingly hard to tell whether Brian’s hallucinations and panic attacks are drug or schizophrenically induced, and Brian often comes across as little more than a hapless victim of conniving or uncaringly brutish authority figures Gene Landry and Murry Wilson. Another opponent, though far more sympathetically, is Brian’s artistically frustrated cousin Mike Love (Jake Able).
Personally, I could really empathise with Love’s (the character’s) professed agitation at Brian’s brothers and himself being side-lined in the band’s creative process: “It’s like we’re hardly even in the Brian Wilson band!” With the exception of Mike and Brian himself, the rest of the band receive little characterisation. The death of Brian’s brother Dennis, the band’s drummer, is alluded to early on as a reason for Brian’s current depression, but beyond telling us “he drowned about three years ago”, we hear nothing about Dennis’ own battles with alcoholism which would lead to his death. Lead guitarist Carl Wilson, who died of lung cancer in 1998, is also largely absent.
Not unusually for a biopic, there are a fair few characters and events which seemed pretty one-sided. This is most obvious in 87-8 arc, but also near the end of the Young Brian arc which pretty much implied that Brian’s father Murry’s decision to sell off the rights to many of The Beach Boys’s songs in 1969 would hail the end of the bands formative existence. In actual fact, the band would go on to release an impressive total of 16 further albums [the masterful Surf’s Up (1970) among them – Ed.], with pretty consistent regularity, until Stars and Stripes Vol.1 (1994) marked a 16 year hiatus. (Though Brian certainly played a diminishing role in the band’s direction after the aborted Smile (1967).)
I could only conjecture a response to the more shocking aspects of Brian’s treatment by his father and subsequently by Gene, having had very limited background reading on the subject. However, even the real life Melinda Ledbetter herself, though very impressed with the film as a whole, was notably ambiguous in her interviewed response to the film’s portrayal and implication of Murry Wilson’s abusive relationship with Brian: “Well obviously, I’d heard about it and I knew about it, but to watch it like that… well, it’s an entirely different ballgame.”
To L&M’s credit however, Gene (Paul Giamatti) and Murry (Bill Camp), while coming across as thoroughly controlling and manipulative in their own way, seldom seem overly one-dimensional. Giamatti particularly earns his salt as the conniving Gene, who often appears to earnestly believe his invasive and belittling treatment methods are in Brian’s best interests: “I pulled him out from the grave after three years in bed and put him back on his feet!” It’s all the eerier that such a plump, seemingly affable figure can elicit almost Ratched-esque levels of passive aggressive tyranny.
It’s always been the nature of biopics, particularly in cinema, to dramatise and even romanticise their subject at the expense of objectivity. One need only look at a recent examples like The Immitation Game (2014): Critically praised, well-received by audiences and surviving subjects alike, but anybody with the faintest knowledge of the operations at Bletchley Park could tell you that the idea of Alan Turing having a eureka moment whilst quaffing a pint with his pals down the good ol’ English pub, or of its senior officials knowingly harbouring a Soviet spy, is frankly laughable.
To give L&M its dues, however, it manages to conduct and even synchronise both of its chronological arcs far more cohesively than Imitation Game, and both are useful for our understanding and appreciation of the character. There are a lot of pieces missing to be sure, but on the whole Pohlad winds two very different narrative arcs together into a pretty cohesive whole.
While rather less gripping than some other portrayals of paranoid schizophrenia, viz. Russell Crowe’s John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Cusack does convey a more realistic, understated mix of instability and inertia in Old Brian: gazing about him without really fixing on anything, inadvertently twitching as if something invisible was prodding him in the back. The only time the film hammers home its dissociative theme rather too thoroughly would be when Brian has a weird epiphany moment and awakes as a young child looking at his younger self at the foot of the bed. It smacks like an almost comic rendition of the Beyond Jupiter scene in A Space Odyssey.
So, would I recommend Love & Mercy? All in all, yes. It has its share of faults: A host of rather underdeveloped characters; a history which is only rather partially observed; and it’s a bit of a slow burner, but it nevertheless manages to impress with strong performances from its leads and some luscious cinematography which impressively manages to evoke both California in its surfing heyday of the mid 60s and the equally picturesque late 80s.
If you’re a Beach Boys fan, you’ll find plenty to like, if not love, in Love & Mercy. It’s chock full of classics and you can tell Pohlad positively adores Brian and the band’s music, devoting some of the film’s most extensive, and best scenes, to Young Brian’s impulsive, verging on OCD, studio production methods. These scenes are bolstered no end by the regular use of genuine studio musicians rather than actors and accompanied with some strikingly realised faux archive footage of the period.
If you’re only very vaguely, or are (somehow) not at all aware of The Beach Boys, it’s still a pretty good and very watchable introduction to the band’s most iconic period. Just remember: Love & Mercy is far more The Brian Wilson Story, albeit with some hefty gaps, than it is that of The Beach Boys. Undoubtedly, however, they are, to many, one and the same creative entity.