‘Love And Mercy’ Is An Entertaining But Conventional Brian Wilson Biopic

There’s a scene in the middle of Love & Mercy, where the Beach Boys are all sitting around smoking joints inside a yurt parked in Brian Wilson’s living room (home yurts were big in the sixties). Mike Love (Jake Abel) is earnestly pleading for the band to drop their newfound psychedelic emo sound after their latest album, Pet Sounds, fails to go gold. “There’s no hits!” Love complains. “We gotta get back to the formula. The success was in the formula.”

“Yeah… like Coca-Cola,” says Dennis Wilson. “Or a geometry problem,” adds Carl, both busting Mike’s balls.

“Mike, we were never surfers and real surfers don’t dig our music anyway!” shouts Brian (Paul Dano, in this scene). “I can’t write sun sun sun fun fun fun anymore.”

All of which is to say that Love & Mercy is mostly sun and fun to watch but as a movie it’s much more Mike Love than Brian Wilson. More the biopic equivalent of “Surfin USA” than “God Only Knows.” It’d be compelling enough for the yurt-filled living rooms and the song creation myths alone, but honestly, how many times have we heard that song? Inside the yurt, the Wilson boys make fun of Mike Love and art eventually triumphs over commerce, but you get the feeling that the Love & Mercy pre-production meeting had the opposite outcome. “Okay, okay, you’re right, people will freak out if we don’t have epilogue text and the real Brian Wilson singing at the end.”

Still, it’s an impressive enough feat just to keep a Brian Wilson biopic interesting when the target audience already knows so much about the Brian Wilson story – either through books we’ve read, shows we’ve seen, or just pieces of the story we’ve absorbed through 30 years of pop culture osmosis. I’m pretty sure Wilson’s life inspired parts of Walk Hard. The touched-by-God musical prodigy. The jealous, overbearing, abusive father. The bandmates who occasionally doubted him. The struggles with sanity and the Svengali quack who kept him from his family. The Brian Wilson story is already so widely known and so Behind The Music-slick that there’s an obvious temptation to turn it reductive and pat, where every life event has an eerie foreshadowing and every character is a Shakespearean archetype (“Settle down, y’all, Brian Wilson gotta think about his whoooole life before he sings.”). He was damaged because of his abusive father! His fragile mental state helped make him a genius! He let himself be manipulated by an overbearing shrink because who became a surrogate father! Something something death of a sibling!

Thankfully Love & Mercy, from director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner, doesn’t quite give Wilson the Ray treatment, and it’s not nearly as cheese-conventional as it would be if, say, Bennett Miller had directed it. It breaks up the usual chronology by intercutting between two parallel timelines – Young Wilson, played by Paul Dano, as he’s just beginning to dabble in LSD and grow a fat gut while recording Pet Sounds and Smile; and Old Wilson, played by John Cusack, trying to get out from under the thumb of his wicked, live-in psychologist/leech, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), with the help of his lava hot new love interest Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Get On Up used essentially the same structure for James Brown, so it’s not new, but it makes sense for telling the story of someone who has such a hard split between his young and old public personae like Wilson.

Love & Mercy seems to think intercut timelines is innovation enough, and it does keep it from being so oppressively linear that we’d be annoyed to watch Brian Wilson compose “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Watching a song come together remains inexplicably compelling and never seems to get old. Dano is great as young Wilson, nailing Wilson’s hangdog, almost pidgin English-sounding speaking voice. Cusack is passable as older Wilson, even if his snare drum-tight forehead skin has become distracting to look at. Jake Abel is enjoyable and eerily accurate as Mike Love, depicted as a natural born shill unconvincingly trying to hide his baldness beneath an ever-expanding collection of silly hats. Paul Giamatti, who could play an oddball sicko in his sleep at this point, is in full Pig Vomit mode here and brilliant as usual, as is bleeding-knuckle hot Elizabeth Banks.

But honestly, aren’t we sick of talking about how good the f*cking acting is in f*cking musician biopics?

A biopic can be a lot more than just an actor’s showcase, and it doesn’t even take that much. David Oyelowo was great in Selma, but even greater was the way Ava DuVernay incorporated actual FBI surveillance notes into the film’s text. Every biopic is a mixture of primary sourced accounts and artistic license. Why hide it? It’s so much easier to enjoy a based-on-a-true story account when it’s not trying to hide its construction. If you don’t let your sources peek through from time to time the story just feels monolithic and propagandized. Love & Mercy does a solid job portraying Mike Love as Brian Wilson’s natural antagonist but not necessarily a bad guy. By contrast, Eugene Landy and Wilson’s father are such smirking villains that you wouldn’t have to check Wikipedia to know that they’re both dead.

Having to constantly wonder “what aren’t they telling me?” takes you out of the story. And as entertaining as Love & Mercy is, you can’t help but notice how closely it hews to the Brian-Wilson-as-troubled-genius narrative his publicists have been pushing for 30 years now.

It’s 2015. Even The Real World (now 30 years old) breaks the fourth wall now. Do you really think people would’ve freaked out if, say, The Fighter had interspersed some real footage of Mickey Ward fights in with Marky Mark pretending? Likewise, are you really going to make me wait until the pre-credits epilogue text to find out about Brian Wilson or Eugene Landy when I can find hours of footage of them on YouTube? At some point you have to ask whether this biopic format is storytelling or just a bigger budgeted celebrity lip-synch competition.

Love & Mercy is perfectly pleasant to watch, but it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity not to use a single piece of stock footage or primary sourcing (at one point they recreate audio from Smile session bootlegs but never tip their hat to let us know that they are). When Brian Wilson leaves studio voices on the track over Mike Love’s objections, the movie treats Wilson as maverick, the bold iconoclast to Love’s convention-bound shill. And yet you know those voices would’ve never made it past the edit on Love & Mercy. That would be, as Mike Love says, “unprofessional.”  If only someone would’ve slipped Bill Pohlad some acid.

Grade: B

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.