There’s a scene in this new Brian Wilson biopic set during the late 80s when it’s mentioned that our subject is busy recording his first solo album and writing his autobiography. What isn’t mentioned though – presumably lest it cause a rift in the space-time continuum – is that around the same time, Wilson was also in early negotiations for a biopic entitled Love & Mercy to be made about his life.
In the event, that film didn’t happen, despite an announcement that William Hurt would star as Wilson. But if it had, it would definitely have been a very different entity from this film of the same name. Most likely it would have been a glowing celebration of Wilson’s life-saving relationship with his unconventional psychotherapist Eugene Landy (a role for which Richard Dreyfuss had been lined up). Certainly, Wilson’s autobiography, published in 1991, takes exactly that approach. But nowadays Wilson disowns the autobiography entirely, and claims never to have even read it. In fact, it’s understood that Landy wrote a lot of it himself. And Love & Mercy, now on release, certainly doesn’t give Landy such an easy ride.
Really it’s a film of two halves, though in more ways than one. Rather than attempt to cover the whole life of Brian, it focuses on two key periods, with two different actors playing Wilson: Paul Dano as 60s Brian, as he teeters on the crest of a wave; and John Cusack as 80s Brian, a broken man firmly in the care of Landy (played by Paul Giamatti). This ‘multiple personality’ take on a legendary music figure might be familiar to viewers of the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, the co-writer of which, Oren Moverman, is also the co-writer here. Dano’s performance is extraordinary, and he inhabits the role totally. Cusack is more low-key, but still very impressive and hugely endearing and, in truth, Dano has more meaty material to work with.
The stories of these twin Wilsons switch back and forth throughout which makes for a propulsive, compelling narrative, bringing out nuances and implications in the mirroring between the two. And it’s certainly a sensitive, sophisticated portrayal of Wilson’s life. The true core of this story is right inside Brian Wilson’s head, and that’s not an easy thing to dramatize. But this manages to do exactly that, with some expressionistic, unconventional techniques.
Sound is vitally important to Wilson, and the inventive, evocative use of sound in this film is particularly effective. Director Bill Pohlad has worked far more widely as a producer, on the likes of 12 Years a Slave, Wild and Tree of Life, but on this showing he clearly belongs behind a camera. For the most part, the usual trappings of rock biopics – backstage histrionics, on-tour excesses, record company clashes – are abandoned here, or else depicted as moving tableaux within expositional montages. Instead, it’s a low-key film about the relationships between individual characters, and vastly the better for it.
If there is fault to be found, it’s probably with the script rather than the performances or the direction. Beyond the complex figure of Wilson, most of the characters are painted with a very broad brush indeed. Certain key figures in Wilson’s story become very sketchy, or else don’t even merit so much as a walk-on appearance. His band member brothers Carl and Dennis, both of whom developed into talented songwriters in their own right, barely register at all. Both, sadly, are now dead. Wilson’s cousin Mike Love, arguably The Beach Boys‘ lead singer and live showman, is still alive and highly litigious. This might explain why his real-life disdainful antagonism towards Wilson has been reined in to make him a kind of nagging voice of reason. Even this is softened by making him out to be pretty much the co-creator of Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys’ biggest ever hit, even though no other account of the story has ever given him quite so much credit.
It’s this sense that we’re being presented with a compromised version of the facts that is the only real let-down to Love & Mercy. Of course, any biopic is likely to streamline the details, telescope events down, and move some figures off-stage entirely. But at times this strays into misleading viewers entirely, and perhaps not accidentally.
The 80s side of the story becomes a direct battle for Wilson’s soul between his girlfriend Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks) and Landy. But while Landy was undoubtedly a manipulative control-freak, he could also be credited with saving Wilson’s life. The shades of grey therein are lost with Giamatti’s portrayal which, though bold, reduces Landy to the status of a comic-book villain. It’s only a wonder that he’s not seen tying Wilson to a railway track while twiddling his moustache. Landy, note, is also now dead and therefore unlikely to sue. Meanwhile, some dark rumours imply that Melinda’s own real-life behaviour can be highly controlling, too – but unsurprisingly, this film, which she was so instrumental in getting made, doesn’t go there.
Make no mistake, though, in most ways that matter, Love & Mercy is a fine, subtle film, vastly superior to your standard rock biopic, and worthy of its subject. The defter 60s side has the edge over the more prosaic 80s side, just about, but together they manage to conjure up an extraordinary, fascinating life on the big screen. It’s just a slight shame that, when the attention to detail has been so careful as to include Wilson’s period clothing, ornaments, and genuine in-studio dialogue, some of the facts of the matter appear to have been massaged into shape for posterity.
By Andy Murray
Love & Mercy is showing in cinemas now