God Only Knows (Film Review: “Love & Mercy”)

love & mercy cover

A rapturous yet tragic biopic of legendary Beach Boy and musical icon, Brian Wilson, both then and now, in astonishing dual performances by John Cusack and Paul Dano.

SnapShot Plot

In the mesmerizing film, Love & Mercymuch of Brian Wilson’s musical and personal journey will be familiar territory to aficionados of the Beach Boys and Wilson’s own indelible contribution to the American popular songbook. To me, Brian Wilson was forever associated with the West Coast surfer sound of the 60’s, and my knowledge of his battles with mental illness and addiction was similarly limited to headlines in entertainment news outlets. So the film’s 30-year span of his life and career (both the super-highs and super-lows) felt fresh and suspenseful, and through the brilliant direction of Bill Pohlad, the back and forth jumps between prior and current Brians was absolutely seamless and organic.

From the very first moment when we encounter the young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) alone at the piano muttering to himself and agonizing over a song, we quickly gauge the thematic conundrum at the heart of the picture. How much of his musical talent was inextricably enmeshed in mental illness? It’s a creative trope as old as the hills: the creative artist as self-medicating mad genius, surrounded by a world unable or unwilling to understand or ultimately, to rescue.

In a sparkling montage of archival clips and those recreated to match iconic Beach Boys moments, we are completely thrust into that time and place and we see Brian Wilson at the height of his creative talent, yearning to stretch the boundaries beyond the iconic sound for which he and his brothers had already become household names. We realize, too the competition of influences that resonated back and forth between the Beach Boys and the Beatles. We also see a struggling young man frightened by the unseen forces within him, desperate for the approval of a violent father who has sacrificed fatherhood, instead opting to make commodities of his sons.

No sooner do we get our bearings in the 60’s than the film smoothly transitions to the 80’s, to the day a markedly less vibrant, now middle-aged Brian Wilson (John Cusack) meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac salesperson with whom he immediately makes a strong personal connection. Thus begins the modern story of how Brian and Melinda tried to forge a relationship that was blocked by the strange and maniacal presence of Brian’s omnipresent and domineering guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. This guy was such a creep – as juicily portrayed by Giamatti – that I had my doubts just how accurate it could be. Turns out he was even more repulsive in real life than his depiction in the film.

So back and forth we go, between the two Brians who seem so removed from each other that it’s hard to believe they’re the same person. Was this an over-reaching conceit of the film? In fact, Brian Wilson has often described his former life with a perplexing degree of disassociation which many have explained vis a vis his long periods of isolation, depression, addiction and questionable treatment at the hands of Dr. ‘FeelGood’ Landy. But whether it’s the magical experimentation in the early studio sessions or the later struggles to reclaim his life, what emerges as a vibrant thread throughout Love & Mercy is the simple humanity at the core of Brian Wilson’s musical voice.

 

“We’re not surfers, we never have been, and real surfers don’t dig our music anyway!”

 

 

Parting Shot

Named after Brian Wilson’s 1988 single, ‘Love and Mercy’, this film spent decades on the shelf, with various producers, writers, directors and stars attached to the project, most notably William Hurt, Jeff Bridges and even Philip Seymour Hoffman considered for the role of Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss as Landy.

Producer/Director Bill Pohlad and Writer, Oren Moverman weren’t so much interested in making a historical biopic as they were in showcasing a few chapters in Brian Wilson’s life that they considered the most illuminating and far-reaching. Specifically, the period in which Wilson was at the apex of his powers, when he was creating his masterwork, Pet Sounds, which only years later was redeemed as a modern masterpiece. As Pohlad was quoted as saying, “You don’t have to know the music here in the same way you didn’t have to know the math in Beautiful Mind … What we want to do is let you experience the story in a personal way.”

If Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys only made one album and it was Pet Sounds, it would be enough to seal their legend. And if only one song had ever been born from Brian Wilson’s head and heart and it was ‘God Only Knows’, that too would have been enough. As Paul McCartney has famously (and perhaps arguably) said, it’s the best pop song ever written. And really, God only knows what more the young Brian Wilson could have composed if his many demons would have just gotten out of his way. Here’s a moving tribute from the BBC:

Love & Mercy is presently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Featured Image Courtesy of:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/love-and-mercy/review/

YouTube Trailer Courtesy of:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGQ

BBC Music ‘God Only Knows’Courtesy of:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqLTe8h0-jo

 

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