Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is acknowledged as a bona fide musical genius and the man who changed the way modern popular music was created and recorded. In that productive era known as the 1960s, the work he did on the album Pet Sounds set the bar for bands like The Beatles. However, Wilson is also known for his problems with drugs, mental disorders and family discord. For many years he was thought of as a casualty of the psychedelic era only returning to public life in the 1980s.
There have been numerous attempts to portray The Beach Boys on screen including a couple of telemovies that shall remain unnamed in this review. Biopics are a difficult movie genre to get right and musical biopics seem to be an even tougher nut to crack. The line between a good biopic such as WALK THE LINE (2005) and an awful example such as THE DOORS (1991) is a thin one. A couple of bad wigs, an over the top drug freak-out and some terrible dialogue and suddenly the audience is in the midst of an unintentional WALK HARD: The DEWEY COX STORY (2007).
LOVE AND MERCY, the new biopic based on Wilson’s life takes a different approach. It is directed by Bill Pohlad, a well-credentialled producer (12 Years A Slave, The Tree of Life) with only one other credit for directing features under his belt. The script is written by Oren Moverman whose screenplay for the Dylan movie I’M NOT THERE (2007) impressed Pohlad; LOVE AND MERCY also has two actors playing the same character at different points in his life. In this movie, Paul Dano is 1960s Brian Wilson and John Cusack is the 1980s iteration. Younger Wilson is blossoming as a musical entity and collapsing under the weight of mental problems and carrying the scars of the tough regime his father Murray put him through. 1980s Wilson is a broken man, over-medicated and breaking under the strain of the tough regime his doctor Eugene Landy put him through.
Many of the scenes have a beautifully loose feel, such as the ones where Wilson is working on Pet Sounds. I got an extra kick out of these, having seen THE WRECKING CREW (2015) documentary so recently. The real footage of Wilson in that film jibes with Dano’s interpretation of the man working with the famous Los Angeles session players for hour after hour. He was getting the sound of the tracks the way he heard them in his head. The first scene with Cusack as older Wilson in the Cadillac dealership with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) is a beautiful, extended piece of performance that shows filmmaking craft and restraint. Here we are reminded that often, the energy of two people creating the sense of a connection, is all that is necessary to grab an audience by the scruff of the neck.
There have been the usual arguments about whether this version of history is accurate. This is beyond the power of AccessReel to determine, however we can say that by choosing a less linear and literalist approach to the material, Moverman and Pohlad have created a movie that creates a powerful sense of the era, The Beach Boys and the music of Brian Wilson. Definitely worth a look for those who care about this slice of pop cultural history. Currently in limited release in Australia. 121 minutes. 8/10