Movie Review: Love & Mercy (2015)
It’s not a great movie but it is a sad fucking story.
Most music biopics follow a familiar pattern: hardscrabble beginnings, slow rise, white-hot stardom; then something gets in the way of the success: drugs, sex, overwork, marital and/or bandmate discord, maybe all of the above. After that mess, we get recovery, resurrection, final concert footage.
Here’s the problem: I almost never have sympathy for the artist once they become famous. You did too many drugs? You fooled around on your wife too much? My heart bleeds.
But with Brian Wilson? Yeah, there’s sympathy. God, yeah.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
“Love & Mercy” is only the second movie directed by Bill Pohlad—son of Carl, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins—but he’s been producer on some of the greatest movies of the 21st century: “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life,” “12 Years a Slave.” He’s also, from my understanding, a big music fan. In the Twin Cities, the Twins and the local music scene are intertwined in a way I haven’t seen in many other cities. One assumes this was Bill’s pet project.
The movie—like Brian himself, you could say—is split into two parts, with two actors playing him.
In 1965, a young Brian (Paul Dano), the chief singer-songwriter of the Beach Boys, is haunted by anxieties and discord, so he gives up touring with the band in order to work on what would become his great achievement: “Pet Sounds.” He retreats into the studio before the Beatles did, but he did it alone, without the camaraderie and competition that Lennon and McCartney had with each other. One wonders what might have been if Mike Love (Jake Abel) had been an equal partner in the process. Or was Brian, a solitary figure, doomed from the start?
The other half of the film is set in the late ’80s, and it’s from the perspective of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful blonde saleswoman at a Cadillac dealership. One day she sees a pair of shoes outside a display car and finds a man (John Cusack) inside. Or man-child? He has a childlike way of talking that recalls Tom Hanks in “Big” and she doesn’t quite know what to make of him. When he asks her to sit in the car with him and then locks the doors, it’s a little creepy. But he just wants to sit there. He just wants to be calm. There are men watching him, bodyguards, he says, adding, “That’s a funny word—bodyguard.” A minute later, he says, “My brother died.” A minute later, she finds out from his handler, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who he is.
The first part of the movie is about the triumph of an artistic rise intercut with the anxiety of a personal downfall. The second part of the movie is about the triumph of a love story intercut with anxious revelations about how bad things are for one of the lovers. Brian may be a rock legend but he’s also a virtual prisoner of Dr. Landy, a martinet with an explosive temper, who has control over Brian’s finances, diet, drugs, life, and who lives in Brian’s bigger house up the coast. Landy tries to control Melinda, too.
Was Brian always a prisoner of something? Or someone? His father, Murry (Bill Camp), was a martinet who boxed his ears as a child, damaging them and him. In the’60s, we see Murry: 1) disparage Brian’s new direction; 2) manage a Beach Boys-like band to replace his sons; and 3) sell the Beach Boys catalogue of songs since he thinks their wave of success is over. There’s not one good thing about him. Same with Landy. Both are monsters, while Brian is generally a victim. He’s like some jelly creature who’s washed up on shore without a shell, defenseless against kids poking him with sticks.
In the ’60s, Brian handles his defenselessness by retreating into his bed for years, but the second half of the movie demonstrates that retreat is not an option. Particularly if you’re wealthy and talented, people will find you and use you. And the sticks will get sharper.
In the kind of world where we belong
Dano as young Brian is perfect, while Cusack is good as the 50-year-old version. The scenes where he’s trapped by Landry, and by his own mental illness, are tough to watch. I’m thinking in particular of the hamburger scene, and that quick, wrecked image by the piano.
It’s tough to make mental illness and drug abuse interesting and “Love & Mercy” doesn’t quite succeed in doing it. Maybe because it focuses too much on the illness (where Brian's a victim) and hardly at all on the drug abuse (where he’s more accountable)? We don't get a great sense of the other Beach Boys, and we don’t quite understand why Melinda falls for Brian beyond the fact that he’s Brian Wilson.
But you do feel for the man. After the movie, you keep exhaling. You go home and you listen to “Pet Sounds” again.