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?