Love & Mercy
Director: Bill Pohlad / Writer: Oren Moverman (based on the life of Brian Wilson) / DP: Robert Yeoman / Editor: Dino Jonsåter / Score: Atticus Ross
Cast: Paul Dano / John Cusack / Elizabeth Banks / Paul Giamatti / Jake Abel / Bill Camp
Life’s a beach…
This was an unexpected treat of a film, nestling in that oft-derided sub-genre, the music biopic. Why derided, I hear you ask? I suppose it’s because there really are only so many ways to tell the same story:
Awakening / Struggle / Discovery / Blossoming / More Struggle / Glory / Complacency / Yet More Struggle / Death.
It’s like the life-cycle of a daffodil or something, yet in Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad managed to hit upon a new-ish formula. Have to admit, Pohlad wasn’t a familiar name prior to watching this, but research reveals a successful career as a producer, with titles such as Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave and Wild, being notable highlights. I suspect it was the enormous success of 12 Years, that helped green-light what is an unusually-structured biopic of Brian Wilson: genius composer / arranger and member of The Beach Boys: it’s the very definition of a passion project, if ever there was. I’ll stick my neck out and say that Pohlad spent some of his creative (and financial) capital to get this green-lit; a clue lays in the fact he stepped behind the camera to direct, as not only does this ensure his vision remained intact, but it helps keep costs down into the bargain. Robert Yeoman was DP on this picture and brought experience gained from shooting many of Wes Anderson’s pictures, which explains why this one just looks so good. From the recreations of 8mm home movies on a mid-sixties Californian beach, to the harsh lighting in a period-correct TV studio, the evocations of an earlier time, all rang true to me.
The real magic happens – of course – when Wilson moves into the studio and we begin to see snapshots of the recording of Pet Sounds; we have screenwriter Oren Moverman to thank for this. An interesting writer for the screen, one of his early scripts was the offbeat ‘biopic’ of Bob Dylan – I’m Not There – in which famous actors (male & female) played Dylan. With that under his belt, a look at Wilson was never going to follow genre conventions, so I’m pleased to report that Moverman found a new structure for this picture; one that paid lip-service to convention. For here we have two time-schemes, running in alternate blocks; one show ‘Brian-Past’ in the Sixties, played brilliantly here by Paul Dano, who captures the descent of Wilson’s state-of-mind, with a real, informed performance. The present-day ‘Brian-Future’ – and the subject of the second time-scheme – is played By John Cusack. I recently gave him a hard time for his contribution to 2012, but he lends a vulnerable fragility to the older Wilson, that I found touching. From our first sight of Cusack, both the script and actor leave us in no doubt that by the late Eighties, Wilson was in a Bad Place, being over-medicated by a court-appointed ‘Guardian’, one Dr. Eugene Landy, who’d mis-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, yet was treating Wilson for it all the same. When we first see Brian-Future, he’s in a Cadillac dealership, sizing-up a barge-like Fleetwood and opening-up to the pretty, blonde saleswoman, Melinda; a girl who doesn’t recognise the star, so who’s able to engage in normal conversation with him. Melinda is played by Elizabeth Banks and of all the players in Wilson’s story, she’s the one who I think has been under-served by the script: I’ll come back to that.
So, the dealership. There’s Brian-Future, shambling and mumbling about both the Fleetwood and Melinda, but it’s the arrival of Landy who, like some modern Svengali, is driving the scene, questioning why Wilson isn’t ‘buying a Maserati instead…’ The ever-wonderful Paul Giamatti plays Landy with an unsubtle, scheming, Fagin-esque grasp on both Wilson’s assets and creative output. At times, he reminds me of Pacino, in the explosive vents of anger he delivers in many of his roles: I’m a big fan… The truth, as ever, was a little more complicated, with Landy employed for two, lengthy spells, to administer an orthodox therapy of his own devising, in which he ‘micro-managed’ the musician. In practice, that meant controlling every aspect of Wilson’s life, from his food intake to the freedom to go on dates with women. Or, buying a Cadillac Fleetwood. The end-result, was that Wilson effectively lived as a recluse, unable to make everyday decisions. Landy’s excuse – ‘that it’s for Brian’s own good’ – ended-up as a catch-all, covering his ongoing abuse of position.
Which brings me to ‘Brian-Past’, where the seeds for ‘Brian-Future’ were planted. Although the Sixties ushered-in many innovations across the board, one area found wanting, was a deeper understanding of mental-health issues; particularly a focus on how recreational drug-taking might adversely affect the mental well-being of users. It’s a subject that’s still misunderstood, even today, but fifty years ago, a spirit of ignorant bliss prevailed, so when Brian-Past first took LSD, its side-effects on a personality as ‘delicate’ as Wilson’s, were unknown. In the event, Wilson was reported at the time, as undergoing an ‘Ego death’, where an individual’s own sense of self – of personality – is destroyed forever. For someone already susceptible to panic attacks, this ‘alienation from self’ must have been a ‘terrifying, beautiful liberation’ and not something one comes back from easily.
In the picture, Brian-Past reacts by exhibiting increased paranoia (e.g. that Phil Spector had bugged his home) and odd behaviour (e.g putting his piano into a sand-pit IN THE LIVING ROOM), but the script doesn’t grace these developments with any concern for his well-being; if anything, it has characters accepting Brian’s ‘genius’: again, a comment on the times.
So we return to Melinda. Played with a determined zeal by Banks, the real Melinda Ledbetter ended-up enlisting the help of Wilson’s surviving brother, Carl and other members of his family, to discredit Landy and have his professional licence revoked in 1989. Contact persisted until 1992, when a restraining order prevented Landy from ever contacting Wilson again (thanks, WikiPedia). This occurred as a result of Melinda’s intervention and gave their on-off romance space in which to deepen; a possibility hitherto dampened by the level of control exerted by Landy, over Wilson’s circle as much as the man himself. I called Melinda’s character under-served by the script and what I meant, is that on one level, this movie might’ve worked without the ‘Brian-Past’ sections, instead focussing on Brian-Future’s long hike back to recovery and the woman who fought for that to happen. At times, I felt the stuff back in the Sixties (great, though it was) felt like it’d been cut-in from another picture. Again, I’m not criticising the finished work on this – it all works – it’s just that I wonder over what might’ve been…
In 1967, Brian Wilson was marooned on an island of the mind. He could see the various ships of those close to him come and go, but his state-of-mind, coupled with inappropriate medication, left him unable to leave his island and fully-return to society. It took Melinda’s determination to bring him back and get him the correct treatment. It’s ironic, really, that so many Rock Legends have passed away through addiction, yet Brian survived it all, thanks to the intervention of a discredited psychotherapist… Oh, and the love of a good woman, lest us not forget.
As I said: a Passion Project…
Melinda: When did you start hearing voices?