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TIFF: ‘Love & Mercy’ & The Tortured Genius of Brian Wilson

The new biopic, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, dives into the legendary Beach Boy’s decades-long struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.

For many who came of age during the ‘60s, the albums of the Beach Boys, a band that celebrated catching waves, sun-kissed California blondes and innocent flirtation, became the soundtrack of their lives. It’s one of the supreme ironies of musical history that Brian Wilson, the musician and producer primarily responsible for the trademark Beach Boys sound, never learned to surf and has long been plagued by far-from-upbeat bouts of mental illness.

As an elder statesman of rock, Wilson now relishes his status as pop music’s archetypal tortured genius. Wilson gave his blessing to Bill Pohlad’s reverential biopic, Love & Mercy, a film that purports to upend many of the clichés associated with biographical films—despite the fact that Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner’s clever script ends up, when all is said and done, circuitously reiterating most of these careworn plot twists. Moverman and Lerner scramble chronology by deciding not to depict their protagonist’s “journey” from substance abuse to eventual redemption in the triumphal, linear fashion familiar from movies such as Walk the Line, James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic. The film interweaves the antics of the young Brian (Paul Dano) of the ‘60s, before his manic-depression became full-blown, and the travails of the older Wilson (John Cusack) of the 1980s, a period when the needy musician was under the care of the dictatorial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Paul Dano Brian Wilson Photo

Actor Paul Dano (left) as Brian Wilson (right) conveys the singer-songwriter’s extreme vulnerability, as well as his astonishing musical inventiveness.

The screenwriters’ ruse has the advantage of explicating Wilson’s inner turmoil, as well as selected career highlights, in a relatively subtle fashion. A victim of a cold, abusive father, Murry Wilson, who wanted to turn his sons into human cash registers, Brian is not depicted as a mere passive victim but as a goofily self-conscious innovator who manages to transform his anguish into melancholy ballads like “God Only Knows” and “In My Room.” Dano is remarkably skillful in conveying the younger Wilson’s extreme vulnerability, as well as his astonishing musical inventiveness. From the outset, tensions between Brian, who yearns to go beyond the fun-in-the sun platitudes of the Beach Boys’ early hits to explore darker terrain, and his cousin and band mate Mike Love (Jake Abel), who continually sneers at Brian’s avant-gardist flights of fancy, is apparent. The battle lines are clearly drawn during recording sessions of the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds, which pits Wilson’s obsessive attention to detail against Love’s disdain for what he regards as self-indulgent, and unprofitable, experimentation.

John Cusack Photo

John Cusack as the older Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as love interest Melinda Ledbetter, who eventually rescues him from his dictatorial therapist. (Photo: TIFF)

The sequences featuring John Cusack’s impersonation of the sadder, but not especially wiser, Wilson become somewhat bogged down in an on-again, off-again romance between this perpetual patient, pitifully unable to extricate himself from Dr. Landy’s tyrannical regimen, and Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a former model and car salesperson who eventually rescues Brian from Landy’s clutches. (They eventually married, after a stormy courtship, in 1995.) Meeting in a Cadillac showroom, this odd couple are rarely free from the watchful eye of Landy and his acolytes. Despite Banks’s sensitive portrayal of a naïve, but altruistic, lover and caregiver, she can’t help but emerge as the stereotypical “good woman” who saves the floundering hero when he is about to fall off an emotional precipice.

Dr. Landy’s unconventional methods—a maniacal authoritarianism that mirrored the abuse of Murry Wilson combined with dangerously high doses of antipsychotic drugs—were little more than the delusions of a self-styled guru who desperately wanted to cash in on his patient’s fame and fortune. Giamatti plays him as a crazed martinet with a Beatles haircut. While Giamatti insists that he sought to avoid portraying Landy as a cardboard villain, it’s difficult to view this hipster analyst as much more than a sinister, if intermittently comic, impediment to Brian’s eventual triumph over adversity.

Mad geniuses have always been more appealing to moviemakers than sane, and no doubt rather dull, creative artists. It’s not at all surprising, for example, that the tormented Vincent van Gogh inspired scores of fiction films and documentaries whereas the career of Henri Matisse, reportedly quite well adjusted, has been neglected by filmmakers. Love & Mercy, despite an admirable attempt to avoid the sappy affirmation cherished by musical biopics, enshrines, perhaps inadvertently, the romantic myth of the heroic madman. For better or worse, Brian Wilson is suitably charismatic when he’s absolutely bonkers and hearing voices, and relatively boring after he’s supposedly cured by a new drug regimen and his wife’s benevolence.  

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