Alex Reviews Love & Mercy - God Only Knows How The Beach Boys Movie Is This Good

Double casting Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson is genius.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜…˜… Musical biopics are a lot more difficult to make than simply taking The Buddy Holly Story, changing the names and maybe throwing in a drug subplot. That straight up approach worked brilliantly for the Gary Busey movie, but there you had a tight timeframe and very clear motivation. For other great artists a different touch is needed. That€™s why the long-proposed Freddie Mercury movie hasn€™t materialised; for all the similar themes of marketing talent and the personal trauma that comes with/creates that, each musician's story is unique, and thus any film translation needs to get right to the core of the individual. Nowhere is this shown better than with Love & Mercy. Brian Wilson, leader of The Beach Boys, could have been a prime target for a paint-by-numbers film (like James Brown got last year in Get On Up); he has popularity, but is creatively stifled, which sends him into a self-destructive cycle that leaves him all too open to outside manipulation. And yet Bill Pohlad (the producer behind 12 Years A Slave and The Tree Of Life directing his first film in twenty-five years) goes at it with a totally distinct approach that could only be applied to Wilson.
The ace is having Brian played by two different people at two very important parts of his life; Paul Dano is Wilson in the late-sixties at the peak of Beach Boys fame and John Cusack picks up two decades later when he is totally broken and terrorised by his domineering doctor (Paul Giamatti). The focus is very much on his fragile, misunderstood mental state, and the scene choice really emphasises that; the highs of the Surfin€™ USA days are summarised in the opening credits. The difference in time obviously means the actors deliver distinct, heartbreaking performances, but both share numerous personal tics that mean you're never in doubt that this is one man across decades. Thusly, the question of who€™s doing it better never comes up; they€™re both Brian (although Dano probably jumps out slightly more thanks to some singing that, particularly in the God Only Knows conception scene, is - like Sam Riley in Control - on a par with the original).
The film jumps back and forth from these two perspectives constantly, but thanks to impeccable production design it€™s immediately obvious which era we€™re in. The timeline choices do feel rather random at first, yet in the final act it becomes clear they€™re all building up to providing cathartic realisation that ultimately explains the frank weirdness of The Beach Boys€™ behind-the-scenes lives. As if to hammer home how unconventional both Wilson€™s life and the film is, Pohlad directs in an exciting, fresh manner. In spirit of his recent producing hits, he shows an obsession with long takes, uninterruptedly following Cusack and Elizabeth Banks as love interest Melinda Ledbetter (odd spelling, I know) through his house during a break-down or rotating 360 degrees to show Dano€™s Wilson€™s obsessive process. It€™s a very un-American stylistic choice for a film all about an American icon (long takes are much more European, with any Hollywood attempt screamed from rooftops), so only goes to make Brian feel even more out of place. It should go without saying that even if you€™ve never heard a single note of The Beach Boys that the film is still well worth a watch - the past sequences get you right into Brian€™s headspace, making his intense drive at once clear and the nature of his true genius undebatable. Just like last week€™s Amy, Love & Mercy shows the complexities and struggles of musical talent in a way totally fitting of its subject with such confidence that it manages to become something more, a profile of obsession. Seen Love & Mercy? Agree with this review? Share your thoughts down in the comments.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.