Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.15
Brian Wilson’s life story is fascinating enough on its own merits, with enough drama, betrayal and crisis to fuel a lengthy and thoroughly fascinating TV miniseries.
That said, director Bill Pohlad and scripters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner deserve credit for the intriguing manner in which they’ve chosen to depict these events, in an engaging, economical two-hour film that charts the exuberant highs and heartbreaking lows of a musical genius who truly suffered for his art.
Rather than giving this tale an old-fashioned monaural spin, Pohlad and his writers have opted for a brighter, dual-track stereo treatment, with two actors playing Wilson during the strikingly distinct points of his life.
Paul Dano is spot-on as the cheerfully round-faced 1960s-era Brian, who married teenage sweetheart Marilyn Rovell and spearheaded the enormously popular pop/rock band that released an astonishing 10 albums in four short years. John Cusack, in turn, is equally compelling as the heartbreakingly subdued 1980s-era Brian, initially in thrall to control-freak celebrity psychotherapist Eugene Landy (a truly scary Paul Giamatti).
Artistically, this two-tone portrayal makes perfect sense; Brian became an entirely different person when, during the making of the albums “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” he succumbed to artistic pressure, drug abuse and (probably) legitimate manic-depressive schizoaffective disorders. No surprise, then, that Pohlad should depict the musician’s before-and-after personas with different actors.
This gimmick isn’t new. Director Tim Fywell guided Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino through the pre- and post-fame guises of Marilyn Monroe, in 1996’s intriguing “Norma Jean & Marilyn.” Not to be outdone, director Todd Haynes employed half a dozen actors — the most intriguing of whom was Cate Blanchett — to depict various aspects of Bob Dylan’s soul, in 2007’s “I’m Not There.”
Stunt casting for its own sake can be an eye-rolling distraction, of course, but the result is entirely different when the project warrants such treatment. In this case, Pohlad’s finished film is by turns fascinating, informative, tender and distressing; I’ve no doubt he and editor Dino Jonsäter fretted over every frame, and the timing of every sequence, with the same care that Wilson brought to his later albums.
Pohlad cross-cuts between the parallel storylines, enhancing our fascination by bouncing skillfully to the other time stream each time we settle into a given chapter. That can be jarring, even unsettling, but it also mirrors the increasing chaos into which Brian’s life descends.
We catch up with Dano’s Young Brian in late-ish 1965 — Pohlad eschews the specificity of precise dates throughout his film — just prior to the Beach Boys’ January 1966 tour of Japan, which Wilson opts to skip in favor of devoting all his attention to songwriting and the creation of what would become “Pet Sounds.” The blossoming rift is already apparent, with Brian’s growing maturity as a composer putting him at odds with first cousin and band co-founder Mike Love (Jake Abel), who simply wants the Beach Boys to keep doing the simple, frothy hits that made them famous in the first place.
Brian perseveres for the moment, thanks to the devoted loyalty of brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), and fifth band member Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Watching this quintet on screen is rather spooky; the various actors don’t necessarily resemble their real-life counterparts all that precisely, but their behavior, dialogue and interpersonal dynamic simply scream “Beach Boys.”
This is especially evident during the re-creation of 1966’s goofy “Sloop John B” promo film: a larkish surfboard-and-swimming pool diversion that is poignant for its innocence (particularly when we recall that Dennis drowned in 1983, and Carl died of lung cancer in 1998).
Pohlad and his writers also do a masterful job of depicting the wizardry of Brian’s creative process, notably his mounting obsession with incorporating a totality of instrumental and ambient noises into the “Pet Sounds” project. Dano, his owlish features increasingly intense, utterly convinces us that Brian is plucking audio bits and pieces from memory, from the atmosphere, even from instrumental happenstance. Chords and base lines that should clash suddenly turn melodic, as if by magic.
At the opposite end of the reactive spectrum, Dano conveys utter bewilderment — disappointment and surprise — when, upon the band’s return, Love reacts with far less than enthusiasm. Hindsight perhaps grants us greater appreciation for Brian’s vision (which history would acknowledge), but Love’s response is understandable; a five-man surf band obviously can’t reproduce such studio-driven material during live stage performances.
The ingenuous Dano makes us believe that Brian doesn’t intend it this way, but Love accurately perceives that the rest of them are becoming irrelevant as musicians, now sourced by Brian solely for their harmonic voices.
Older Brian (Cusack), closely monitored by a handler, wanders into a Cadillac dealership and catches the attention of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). He’s an odd duck, soft-spoken and not — quite — there, and Banks displays just the right amount of hesitation when he suggests they sit in the car together, with the doors closed. We see the scales being weighed behind Melinda’s eyes: fat commission vs. assault by possible lunatic.
She throws caution to the wind, and her reward is a sweet introduction to Brian Wilson, and then, less willingly, to the hovering Dr. Landy. Banks makes Melinda appropriately feisty and wary; she may be selling cars, but she’s no dummy. She immediately senses something menacing about Landy — an impression enhanced by Giamatti’s smarmy, soul-begrimed performance — but, nonetheless, sparks to Brian.
They begin to date, if such a term can be applied to outings that include one or two of Landy’s toadies. The uneasy dynamic reaches its first climax during an afternoon barbecue — at Brian’s former beachfront house, which Landy has commandeered as his own — when the supposedly “caring” therapist assaults Brian, verbally and physically, for taking a few bites of Melinda’s hamburger. The scene is horrific, Cusack’s battered-victim response even worse.
There seems little doubt that this incident — and others to follow — are accurate in spirit, if not actual detail ... in which case, Melinda is one helluva woman. Nobody could have blamed her for bolting, particularly this early in a tentative relationship. She didn’t.
Ledbetter is a showy role for Banks, in a film already dominated by impressive performances. She makes Melinda forceful without becoming unbelievably superhuman: a figure of infuriated grit who becomes determined to right a ghastly wrong. Banks is gutsy and defiant, suggesting enough spunk and backbone that even Giamatti’s Landy, for all his condescending fury, draws back at one point.
It has been a great couple of weeks for Banks, coming off her accomplished feature film directorial debut on “Pitch Perfect 2.” Nothing can be sweeter, I’m sure, for an actress who began her career with inconsequential fluff such as “Wet Hot American Summer” and “The Trade.” And more power to her.
Melinda isn’t quite alone in her uphill battle; she gains the trust of Landy’s equally abused housekeeper, a quietly sensitive performance by Diana Maria Riva, whose Gloria fears speaking out, lest she be deported back to Mexico.
Giamatti’s startlingly cruel behavior aside — and his Landy obviously suffers from anger-management issues that make a mockery of his supposed profession — Cusack nonetheless owns these later segments of Brian’s life. The tics, random asides and unfocused stares notwithstanding, Cusack grants Brian an underlying sweetness and gentleness that make him the ultimate figure of pity; we can’t help wanting to bundle him into a blanket, and take him home.
There’s also a spontaneous warmth to Cusack’s performance: a graceful insouciance that never feels rehearsed. Consider his reaction, toward the film’s end, when Brian guides Melinda along carefully remembered streets, to the house where he grew up ... only to discover that this part of the neighborhood has been razed by the encroaching 105 freeway. Watch Cusack’s body language, to what should have been a crushing disappointment.
Bill Camp has a few choice scenes as the despicable Murry Wilson — father to Brian, Carl and Dennis — whose domineering presence and combative behavior likely contributed to Brian’s mounting mental instability. (How like a battered wife, for Brian to trade an abusive father for an equally abusive therapist.) Despite the estrangement that already exists in this film’s 1960s timeline, Brian continues, childlike, to value his father’s opinion.
Dano’s stricken features are gut-wrenching, at each fresh betrayal ... none worse than the last one: a selfish, vindictive act of financial “revenge” that is breathtaking for its venality.
The film’s action is augmented by snatches of numerous Beach Boys hits, blended against Atticus Ross’ melodic underscore. This musical backdrop often is as clever as Brian’s mind-blowingly intricate compositions, particularly when disparate bits and pieces eventually coalesce to become the band’s biggest hit to date (and one of the most complex pop tunes ever produced, which I readily believe).
Everything — performances, dialogue and most particularly music — is blended deftly by Pohlad, best known as a producer (“12 Years a Slave,” “Wild”), and here helming only his second film, and the first in a quarter-century (!). Based on this evidence, he should direct more often; he clearly has a gift for drawing fine performances from his actors.
Meanwhile, “Love & Mercy” is guaranteed to renew interest in Wilson and the Beach Boys, as well it should.
And don’t bolt from the theater too quickly, as the lights fade. The closing credits unspool against a live performance by the actual Wilson: as sweet a demonstration of survival, and renewed vigor, as could be imagined.