Pet Sounds is spinning around my record player as I begin to write this review -- the sad, syrupy, wonderful lyrics of "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" filling up the front room of my house. It's a beautifully simple song with an incredibly complex, tortured backstory. Its existence is just a little bit miraculous.
From this vantage point comes Love & Mercy, an unconventional biopic about Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson that manages to feel essential whether you are a fan of his music or not.
The musical biopic is especially predisposed to the drudgery of formula. Even when this subgenre had a prolonged moment in the middle of the last decade with the critical and commercial success of Walk the Line and Ray, it was on the strength of performances that elevated otherwise rote stories. Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Jamie Foxx made those films better than they had any right to be.
Not so here. Rather than attempting to bottle a career-defining performance from a single star while going from Point A to Point Z in the most predictable fashion, director Bill Pohlad cast two actors as Wilson and bounces between the distant and more recent past to explore Wilson's musical genius and his fragile mental health.
What a novel concept this is — the idea that you don’t have to tell a linear, cause-and-effect tale to get your audience inside Wilson’s head. You don’t have to start the film with child actors playing the Wilson brothers being physically abused by their on-screen father to fit it in as a part of the story. Nor do you have to conclude with a “cured” sixtysomething Wilson, played by a much younger actor caked in makeup, surrounded by a loving wife or a brood of his own children to give the story a sense of closure.
Pohlad’s two Wilsons are Paul Dano and John Cusack. The younger Dano plays Wilson at the height of his genius and on the precipice of breakdown. While the rest of the band tours the world, he stays behind to record the masterful Pet Sounds, working with a large, diverse house band to perfect the subtle details of each song from an album that, while panned critically at the time, has since become recognized as one of the greatest pop records of all time.
Dano plays Wilson with a blend of manic energy in the studio and subdued sensitivity out of it. Even surrounded by family and his first wife, he comes off as a lost, lonely soul when he’s not recording, a sensation heightened by studio scenes shot in a faux-documentary style that seems to at least mimic 8-millimeter film. (Reviewer’s note: I couldn’t confirm that these scenes were actually shot on an 8-mm camera, but if anyone can, by all means leave a link in the comments.) Somehow, Dano melds Wilson in to a great underdog despite his limitless talent — those scenes in the studio taking on a momentous uphill-battle quality. Again, perhaps that’s much of the point. Given Wilson’s personal battles and the context of every Beach Boys song before it, Pet Sounds is an unlikely record indeed.
If Pet Sounds is an against-all-odds success story, then so to is Wilson’s re-emergence over the last few decades. Cusack plays a late-1980s version of Wilson in the other half of the story. He has mastered some of his demons only to find a whole host of others. Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, helped Wilson escape the prison of his own room and get his weight and addiction problems under control, but at a heavy price. Landy is Wilson’s legal guardian and he is extremely controlling, managing every interaction he has, overmedicating him for “schizophrenia,” and all the while living large off of the isolated Wilson’s sizable fortune. Giamatti has such range, and he brings a sinister spittle to the role of Landy. His manipulations are countered by the calming, drug-free influence of Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac salesperson who falls for Wilson after he buys a car from her dealership. The tug of war between Melinda, played by Elizabeth Banks, and Landy is the film’s true source of tension, and Cusack inhabits the role as someone paralyzed alternately by large doses of psychotropic drugs and his own personal history.
Truth be told, the Cusack scenes had to grow on me. There is a Rain Man-esque quality to his performance — right down to the position and shape of his hands and his speaking cadence — that feels a little forced even if it’s entirely possible that it isn’t. Brian Wilson is such a reclusive figure, how am I to even know? Anyway, even as I mentally clamored for more Dano and less Cusack over the first half of the film, the ping-pong style of the plot and the narrative urgency in the chronologically later part of the story won me over. Dano might melt in to Wilson a bit more successfully than his counterpart, but his part of this story would feel woefully incomplete without Cusack’s bits, and Cusack does well enough to make Love & Mercy whole.
Pohlad gets excellence bordering on brilliance from his dual leads and he succeeds in telling the Brian Wilson story in a way that sets it well apart stylistically from the Johnny Cash story or the Ray Charles story. Perhaps the best bit of praise I can offer, though, is that his film prompted me to give Pet Sounds a spin for the first time in years, and deepened my appreciation for an album and an artist that is already beloved. Love & Mercy isn’t a genius film, but it is a suitable tribute to a real-life genius.