Biopics are a double-edged sword. On one hand, carving out a larger-than-life persona on the big screen drives iconography and extends a legacy. On the other, the inherent trap of the “greatest hits” approach, a structure often leaned on just because of the sheer amount of information you can carry across, can lead to a lack of dimension, sapping the humanity out of a subject. Bill Pohlad was aware of those pitfalls when he set out to make “Love & Mercy,” a cinematic portrait of Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, and he avoided them expertly.
The film tells Wilson's story in two eras. Paul Dano plays the younger, his musical brilliance on display as he puts together landmark albums like “Pet Sounds” and feverishly pushes the boundaries of popular music. John Cusack plays the older, trapped in an emotional cage, over-medicated and with seemingly no one truly looking after his best interests. The result is a dissection of genius and an attempt to understand how it ticks.
I talked to Pohlad recently about all of that, about construction a sonic environment with a sound mix that puts you in Wilson's head, about what the music legend has in common with another genius Pohlad has collaborated with (Terrence Malick) and a whole lot more. Read through the back and forth below.
“Love & Mercy” opens June 5.
HitFix: It's nice to see a non-traditional approach to a biopic, but I'll get to that in a moment. I just wanted to start by asking about “The Pet Sounds Sessions,” because I understand that had a lot to do with driving your interest in making the film. What did you discover in that that lit the spark?
Bill Pohlad: Well first of all, I try to make this admission early on that I didn't grow up as a Beach Boy guy or Brian Wilson guy at all. I was a big music fan but I was kind of more of a Beatles guy back then. I always appreciated their music for what it was and Brian's music for what it was, but I never got fully into it until later in life. And then about 10 or 15 years ago I spontaneously got deeply into “Pet Sounds” for no apparent reasons. Just kind of a spontaneous thing, and really fell in love with it and appreciated it for all that it is and was back at that time.
So that kind of set me up perfectly for when this story came along and when we started really talking about doing the Brian Wilson project. I started kind of getting involved in the material and certainly “The Pet Sound Sessions” boxed set was one of those things that I fell in love with immediately. It's one of these things you can just listen to and just be amazed by it. I guess at times I was listening to it for research, so to speak, to get a sense of how Brian worked in the studio and how he interacted with The Wrecking Crew and how he built things and just, you know, the sound of his voice, really. But on a larger scale and on a more personal scale just simply listening to that, I mean, I think it's just beautiful music all the way through, including Brian's direction and the starts and the stops and all the other things. It's just so beautiful and impactful for me to listen to that. So the idea of trying to capture that on film was certainly a big part of my interest in making the movie.