June 26 — July 09
Love and Mercy
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:30|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Beach Boys or even aware of the importance of their greatest album, Pet Sounds, to appreciate this mesmerizing look at their leader, Brian Wilson. Labelling Love & Mercy a “biopic” does a disservice to director Bill Pohlad’s ingenious film, suggesting that it follows a traditional, over-familiar narrative arc where we watch a Great Man do great things, then meet with difficulties, descend to his lowest point, then happily earn redemption in the third act. Brian Wilson certainly lived a story that would be conducive to this sort of clichéd treatment: a musical genius working in the critically-derided field of pop music, he was troubled by mental illness, drug addiction, an abusive father, and the pressures of fame and internal struggles within the band (comprised of Wilson, his brothers Carl and Dennis, and cousin Mike Love). Despite these obstacles, Brian managed to channel his eccentric brilliance into astounding, influential pop music, crafting one of the essential albums of the ‘60’s, Pet Sounds, and several tracks intended for the follow-up, Smile (which would become a legendary “lost” record). Several years of treatment later, a meek, socially awkward Brian would find himself under the oppressive thumb of his psychiatrist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy. A chance meeting with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter blossoms into romance for Brian, and when the no-nonsense Melinda realizes the extent of Brian’s imprisonment, she takes it upon herself to rescue her future husband from Dr. Landy’s tyranny. That’s plenty of material for an ordinary biopic, but director Bill Pohlad doesn’t go for the ordinary. Better known as a producer, Pohlad might have adapted a directorial style influenced by the impressionistic dramas he’s financed, notably The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave. Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner don’t focus on Wilson’s life as a single linear “story” but instead select two specific periods of his life and move fluidly back and forth between them. One period is set in the late ‘60’s and focuses on how Wilson (with his family/band-mates’ reluctant assistance) created Pet Sounds and the so-called “Smile Sessions,” an aural tapestry that represented a mammoth evolutionary leap for pop music and influenced the sound of an entire generation: the Beatles, who were big fans of the Beach Boys, were driven to answer Brian’s musical challenge with their own seminal album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The other period covered in the film is set is the ‘80’s, when a serene, emotionally hollowed-out Brian Wilson lives a lonely, directionless life under the “protection” of the insidious Dr. Landy (played with frightening intensity by Paul Giamatti). These two parallel storylines are separated even further by having two different actors playing Wilson: Paul Dano is the tortured, extraordinarily gifted incarnation of the ‘60’s, bursting with creativity that often seemed inextricably welded to his mental illness and increasing use of LSD; John Cusack is the withdrawn, “healed” Wilson of the ‘80’s, his musical ambition and desire to interact with the world apparently burned out of him until Melinda Ledbetter slowly wakens him. The idea of telling Brian’s story with two equally-important narrative threads may seem jarring, but it’s deftly handled and amazingly effective. It helps that both storylines, and both Brian Wilson incarnations, are compelling, but in different ways. In the Pet Sounds narrative, we see the younger Wilson at the height of his artistic powers, and Pohlad’s depiction of the creative process is exhilarating to watch: as film critic A.O. Scott noted in The New York Times, Pohlad “makes witnessing the creation of a record as exciting as hearing a classic song for the first time.” Pohlad is helped immensely by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who shoots the recording sessions in a documentary-like style, making us feel like we’ve gone back in time to watch Wilson at work in the studio, seeing the inspired musical decisions that would result in a masterpiece. Pohlad also creates verisimilitude by utilizing real session musicians, actual locations, and authentic equipment; these scenes feel like a real depiction of what it was like in that freewheeling, psychedelic era to craft a perfect pop record, the smell of marijuana and patchouli is almost palpable. But it’s Paul Dano’s performance that sells Brian Wilson’s genius to us: his enthusiasm and love of making music is infectious. The ‘80’s narrative is just as intriguing, introducing us to Melinda and making her a believably heroic figure. Her attempts to save Brian from Dr. Landy and help him return to the world give this section plenty of emotional interest, and Elizabeth Banks is terrific as Melinda, her tenacity, grit, and genuine love for socially-maladroit Brian make her easy to like. Together, both narratives form a complex, fascinating portrait of the artist. Not only do the dual performances and storylines illuminate different facets of Wilson’s personality, they enrich one another through juxtaposition: the Pet Sounds creation story becomes more poignant when we see what Brian Wilson will become; the Melinda/Dr. Landy story becomes deeper because we see the vibrant, soulful creative force Wilson had been. The ‘60’s ambiance contrasts starkly with the more jaded, cynical ‘80’s (and Yeoman’s cinematography in this storyline has an appropriately bright, artificial sheen). It’s a bit disconcerting at first to have two adult actors portraying Wilson, but though Dano and Cusack don’t look alike, gradually we “see” them as the same person, one struggling with addiction and madness, one trying to regain the creative fire and energy of his youth. The performances subtly complement one another and add up to a rich, multi-layered characterization far beyond what most “biopics” achieve. To call Love & Mercy (named for a Brian Wilson solo album) a biopic, though, is to shortchange its achievement: it’s not just a celebration of a musician, but a stylistically audacious examination of the creative drive, the relationship between genius and insanity, and the temptation for artists to remove themselves from the world. It’s also one of the best-acted, insightful films of the year, one that, as A.O. Scott points out, “take[s] us deeper inside a musical mind than we might have thought possible. [The film] doesn’t claim to solve the mystery of Brian Wilson, but it succeeds beyond all expectation in making you hear where he was coming from.”
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