July 8, 2015

Love & Mercy (2014)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Bill Pohlad
Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks

What it's about. A biography of Brian Wilson, a founding member of The Beach Boys, one of the most popular American rock bands during the 1960s. The biography covers two separate time periods in Wilson's life, circa 1966 and 1985. Paul Dano plays the 1966 version, while John Cusack is the older and dissipated Wilson.

The film alternates back and forth between the two time periods, but 1966 gets the majority of screentime. This is the year that Wilson produced the band's most famous album, "Pet Sounds," and also produced one of their most successful singles, "Good Vibrations." Wilson is shown working out the arrangements with studio musicians. The other band members show up later in the game to contribute harmony or lead vocals.

The 1966 Brian Wilson is presented as the musical genius behind the Beach Boys success. But there is growing trouble in paradise. Wilson had his first nervous breakdown in 1964, provoked by fear of flying. Wilson previously toured with the group, increasing his stress. He convinced the band to replace him on tour, which allowed Wilson to remain in California to write and produce the band's songbook.

After the smash hit "Good Vibrations", Wilson's mental illness increases, and he is increasingly withdrawn and inert. The film suggests this is at least partly due to his difficult and demanding father Murray (Bill Camp), who was physically abusive to the Wilson children when they were young. Another villain is fellow Beach Boy Mike Love (Jake Abel), Brian's cousin, whose practical and assertive style clashes with Brian's more dreamy and wishful demeanor.

The other primary Beach Boys, Wilson's brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) plus non-family member Al Jardine (Graham Rogers), typically cede to Brian's problematic muse.

The cira-1985 Brian Wilson is as troubled as ever. He is virtually a prisoner of his full-time therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a verbally abusive control freak plying Wilson with excessive prescription pills. It appears that Landy is using Wilson as his meal ticket, and plans to keep him medicated and intimidated indefinitely.

Enter Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), an attractive 30-something car salesman. Sympathetic, understanding, and undeterred, she begins dating Brian Wilson. At first she tries to work with the omnipresent and intimidating Dr. Landy, then she schemes, ultimately successfully, with Wilson's immigrant housekeeper (Diana Maria Riva) to extricate the malevolent Dr. Landy from Wilson's life.

How others will see it. Love & Mercy has had a limited release so far, but television ads suggest it may yet see a wider run in theaters. Critics have been favorable, and the movie has had some success on the awards circuit, typically as an audience favorite for Best Narrative Feature.

At imdb.com, the movie has a high and consistent user rating of 7.9. Those who dislike it tend to be Beach Boys fans with high expectations. Most viewers, though, promptly side with the heroes (Brian Wilson and future wife Melinda) against the villains (Dr. Landy, Murray Wilson, and Mike Love).

How I felt about it. The closing credits inform us that the "Pet Sounds" LP is considered to be the greatest album ever. The record is readily available on YouTube. You will find that it has three tiers: the three hits (Wouldn't It Be Nice, Sloop John B., and God Only Knows), which grade 95 to 96, the remaining vocal tracks, which grade 89 to 90, and the instrumental filler, which is of little consequence, and vastly overrated. The second-tier vocal titles are a bit better than the filler titles from preceding albums, but the compilation "Endless Summer", which contains no titles from "Pet Sounds", is certainly more consistent, and better overall.

"Pet Sounds" is clearly a lesser work than the best albums by the leading British rock groups from the sixties, such as the Beatles' "Rubber Soul", the Rolling Stones' "Now", the Kinks "Something Else", and "The Who Sells Out." Among American 1960s artists, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River" is also better than "Pet Sounds," as is Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?", and James Brown's "Live at the Apollo." It is little known that Brenda Lee recorded several albums worth of outstanding recordings. What all these albums lack, however, is the dramatic back story of a mentally disturbed leader beset by mean people who don't understand his genius.

So, while Brian Wilson is an important figure in rock and roll history who had a talent for vocal arrangements, he ranks behind such 1960s luminaries as Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Peter Townsend, and Ray Davies, not to mention many black artists and producers such as Berry Gordy, a list I omit for purposes of brevity. Beach Boy specialist fans are attached to the story as much as the music, or perhaps they just can't handle the potency of "Paint It Black", which is better than anything in the Beach Boys' catalog yet is just one of several dozen Rolling Stones songs of similar quality.

Back to the movie. It is true that the cuts between 1966 and 1985 are jarring, Brian Wilson's drug abuse and obesity are underplayed, and we feel much of the story has been omitted. But beyond the oversimplification of the characters into hero, villain, and passive categories, we have a well-intentioned and well researched effort, backed up by solid filmmaking.