REVIEW: ‘Love and Mercy’ makes me SMiLE

Bill Pohlad, John Cusack, and Brian Wilson answer audience questions after the screening of "Love and Mercy." FLARE PHOTO BY KATHRYN AGEE.
Bill Pohlad, John Cusack, and Brian Wilson answer audience questions after the screening of “Love and Mercy.” FLARE PHOTO BY KATHRYN AGEE.

Anyone who knows me knows my favorite band is The Beach Boys, and my favorite musician is their leader, Brian Wilson. I first got deep into their music last November when I heard their album SMiLE, an album which wasn’t officially released until 45 years after its conception and recording. It was worth the wait, as I consider it the best album I’ve ever heard.

I found out that a biopic of Wilson was in the works, and would be screening at SXSW with Wilson in attendance. I knew I had to go and see this film. The experience is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life as one of the most emotionally powerful events I have been a part of.

Love and Mercy is the story of The Beach Boys’ founder Brian Wilson. The film chronicles his rise to fame in the 1960’s and the his decline into mental illness, and his escape from the control of his therapist in the 1980’s.

Paul Dano plays Wilson in the 1960’s scenes, and John Cusack plays him in the 1980’s. It also stars Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s future wife, Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti as his therapist, Eugene Landy.

Paul Dano exudes the boyish look of young Wilson perfectly. He relearned how to play piano for the role, and sings much of the music in the film. Highlight scenes include Dano playing and singing the Beach Boys classics “God Only Knows” and “Surf’s Up.”

His performance is hard to watch at times because of how depressing it is seeing him devolve from an energetic, fun young man into a tortured, drained artist. Dano handles the role with passion and care, and his performance never feels forced or fake.

When Wilson begins to suffer a panic attack, anyone who’s had one will feel deeply for him. When he starts to have physical symptoms of depression after years of physical and mental abuse from his father and disapproval of his musical direction from fellow bandmate Mike Love, Dano portrays the hurt that comes from those events with subtle facial expressions and natural transition.

John Cusack looks less like Wilson physically, but his performance may be even more complex. His Wilson has been to the bottom, and he brilliantly portrays how challenging it is to rebuild your life after going through mental and physical anguish.

Elizabeth Banks has a great departure from her more well known comedic film roles, and as Ledbetter, she shows her strength and respect for the man she loves through actions and subtle expressions instead of overt, over the top dialogue.

Paul Giamatti has the most campy role in the film as Eugene Landy, but this is unfortunately how Landy was in real life. He was as violent and controlling over Wilson’s life as the movie portrays, so his abusive, manipulative, angering performance is highly accurate.

I may be biased because I am such a big fan, but Love and Mercy is one of the best biopics I have ever seen. Everyone involved has an obvious love and appreciation for the material and subject. One thing I hate about many films based on a true story is the need of filmmakers to change aspects of the subject to try and make the film more marketable or entertaining. One of the best things about Love and Mercy is that it doesn’t exaggerate or make up events to make the film more interesting. The filmmakers trust the strength of its source material is interesting enough to make for a great story.

The storytelling strutcure of the movie is interesting and risky. The film jumps from the 60’s to the 80’s without warning, and it works. The slighly askew technique allows the audience to experience the downfall and uprising of Wilson’s life simultaneously, and allows the movie to end on a happy note.

One complaint many people have is that the film skips over the 1970’s, Wilson’s most tumultuous period in which he weighed 300 pounds and spent the majority of three years in bed, crippled by depression and drug addiction. I think it is an intersting choice that the filmmakers decided to not show this portion of his life. It allows the audience to examine the reasons for his downfall and redemption instead of indulging in the horrible escapism Wilson turned to.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, best known for creating the look of Wes Anderson’s films, blends stylistic tone with realistic camera work, creating a sense of false nostalgia that is surreal yet inviting and intense.

Beach Boys fans will appreciate the movie more than the average filmgoer. Mike Love in hats, dancing, and mentioning “the formula”? Check. Drug tent and piano in the sandbox in WIlson’s living room? Check. The infamous “Fire” session? Check. Everything is on point, from the scarily accurate wardrobe down to recreating the “Sloop John B.” and “Surf’s Up” promo videos shot for shot. It’s these moments that show the film was made by fans with an attention for detail.

Almost every song on the album Pet Sounds is featured in the film somewhere. Seeing Wilson’s unorthodox recording techniques is such a pleasure for music nerds. A great moment is when bassist Carol Kaye questions why the baseline of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is in a different key than the rest of the song. “It sounds good in my head,” says Wilson, and of course, his musical instincts prove to be correct.

Composer Atticus Ross works wonders with the score, using a great wealth of Wilson’s music in different ways and choosing songs that fit with the emotional tone of the scene brilliantly. Hearing the instrumental version of “Don’t Talk” play as Wilson takes LSD for the first time is haunting. Witnessing the song “Til’ I Die” play over a surreal, Kubrickian scene in which WIlson has an epiphany made me cry because of the powerful combination of imagery and music.

The film is being released on June 5, to capitalize on The Beach Boys music being a staple of the summer, but it feels more like a Thanksgiving release to me. The cinematography, acting, script, and score are all Oscar worthy in my opinion, but the film may get lost in the race to other contenders, which is a shame.

Love and Mercy is an awesome, unorthodox biopic that takes risks with form and narrative that has strong performances, script, cinematography, and of course, an amazing soundtrack. It will expose millenials to the brilliance of Wilson’s music and give older fans an insight into why Wilson is the poster boy for using creativity as an escape and an outlet from the pain of life and mental illness.

Brian Wilson’s music gave me a different perspective on life, and his method of coping with depression by using his creative gifts made me feel like I wasn’t weird or alone by doing the same thing. If just one person seeing the movie feels more understood by seeing it, then in my opinion, Love and Mercy has done its job.

And seriously, listen to the album SMiLE.