By Richie Angel
“I can’t write about the summer and fun and summer and summer and fun and cars! I got different stuff inside me! I gotta get it out!”
Originally conceived in 1988 and slated to star William Hurt and Richard Dreyfuss, Love & Mercy was eventually revived as a passion project for Bill Pohlad, producer of Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave. Pohlad financed and helmed the film—only his second directorial feature, twenty-four years after his debut—taking special care to cover his subject, Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, with the utmost historical accuracy. Referring to one major portion of this gripping biopic, Wilson called it “very factual, accurate, stimulating.”
Love & Mercy follows Wilson in two timelines, twenty years apart. In the first, Wilson (Paul Dano) sets out to surpass The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, composing the unconventional Pet Sounds while confronting mental illness and pushback over his deviations from The Beach Boys’ formula. In the second, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) falls for a heavily medicated Wilson (John Cusack), but she starts picking up bad vibrations from Wilson’s psychotherapist (Paul Giamatti).
Pohlad compared Love & Mercy to A Beautiful Mind, with music instead of math. Screenwriter Oren Moverman said he was “not just trying to tell a story,” but “create a cinematic equivalent” of Wilson’s music, with “strange chord shifts in the cinematic structure.”
Somehow, the film succeeds. Every time you think it’s just an innovative, occasionally tragic biopic, the movie assaults you with elements of a psychological thriller. Early on, the film includes sixty seconds of darkness, populated by swirling audio cues—snatches of memories, or maybe inspiration that Wilson is trying to harness. The unsettling sound design lingers throughout, with an atmospheric audio mix that emphasizes the background with plane engines, party music, birdsong, and clanking silverware. Many sets feature white-walled rooms, reminiscent of institutionalization. The movie is captured through Wilson’s mind. And yet, while the second timeline is presented in Ledbetter’s perspective, the sound and set cues continue when Wilson is absent. Again, somehow, it succeeds.
The first timeline is awe-inspiring, watching Wilson navigate the off-the-wall production of what is now one of the most acclaimed albums of all time, shot in the very studio where it took place. While bandmates question (at best) the “car horns and bicycle bells and jingle jangle,” or “two bass lines in two different keys,” Wilson reassures, “Well, it works in my head,” putting bobby pins on piano strings, recording dogs barking, and asking, “Chuck, do you think you could get a horse in here?” The sessions feature dozens of unique instruments including kettle drums, a fish güiro, and a clown horn. At one point, Wilson spends hours adjusting a cello. Wilson is out to “make the greatest album ever made,” and the secret lives somewhere between dedication and obsession.
Love & Mercy bucks stale and parodied formulas, succeeding as both psychological dramatization and love letter to a vindicated artist and his path to channeling musical greatness. And that’s why every musician should watch Love & Mercy.