By Ali Bush '19
At first glance, “Love & Mercy” (2015) seems to be a biopic of the life of Brian Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys, but the film is much more than that: it’s a story of genius, trauma, and music. In capturing the complexity of ups and downs in Wilson’s life, director Bill Polahd makes the bold choice of focusing in on two distinct time periods of Wilson’s life, which encompass the best and worst years of his career and were complicated by drugs and mental illness. While half of the scenes are sporadically set in the ‘60s during the making of the Beach Boys’ highly acclaimed album, “Pet Sounds,” the other half of the scenes are set in the ‘80s during Wilson’s mental breakdown, entanglement with his abusive therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giomatti), and eventual rescue by his second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The storyline beautifully bounces from one era to the next and back again, weaving two very different experiences in Wilson’s life into one cohesive picture and taking the viewer on an unexpected ride. In abandoning orthodox, linear storytelling methods Polahd emphasizes the most important element of the film: Wilson’s music.
Both eras of Wilson’s life were extremely moving. With Paul Dano playing a young and ambitious Wilson, the scenes set in the ‘60s create a kaleidoscope of images ranging from LSD-induced dream sequences to intense studio sessions to traumatic anxiety attacks. These scenes truly are an homage to Wilson’s musical genius and the intense energy he put into the masterpiece that is “Pet Sounds.” Scenes in which Wilson is writing and orchestrating his music are magnificently directed and are truly the most powerful scenes in the movie. By dissecting the layers of songs and isolating the base lines and Wilson’s haunting vocal tracks to the songs we all know and love — such as “God only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” — even the most musically inept viewer becomes attuned to Wilson’s writing process and the genius behind his experimentation. We are given access to both the musical vision and troubling voices that collide in Wilson’s head, and Dano perfectly portrays Wilson as a gentle young man endowed by yet confused with this remarkable musical gift. As we see Wilson create his magnum opus, we also see him kept from true happiness by his work’sbad reviews, his abusive father, and his anxiety.
Told through Wilson’s current wife’s point of view, the scenes set in the ‘80s focus less on Wilson’s music and more on Wilson’s attempted comeback album, mental illness, and relationship with his current wife, Melinda. Despite looking distractingly nothing like Wilson or Dano, John Cusack gives a moving performance as an older Wilson hopelessly caught in the trap of his sleazy, manipulative therapist, Eugene Landy. These scenes provide the film with much more suspense and melodrama, while the scenes set in the ‘60s provide more of an introspective insight into Wilson’s music. Melinda and Brian’s relationship bring the entire movie together as she saves him from his over-prescribing therapist and truly cherishes him for his talent and soul.
Unlike other musical biopics which normally outline a musician’s rise to fame, fall, and then eventual comeback, this movie’s fluidity between two different time periods and stories flawlessly breaks down the linear methods of storytelling we are so used to. Similarly, creating scenes that contain only music and not dialogue may seem to be a difficult task, but through Dano’s acting and Polahd’s direction, these moments create a magical experience. The non-linear manner of “Love & Mercy” exposes how Wilson’s past and present are intertwined, and-- more importantly-- force the viewer to focus on the most important elements of the film: the music and the good vibrations.