I recall one reviewer snarkily opining back in 2000 that “ABC will apparently make a Beach Boys movie every ten years until they get it right.” This was in reaction to the clunker that was the 2000 miniseries “The Beach Boys: An American Family”, as well as 1990’s “so-bad-it’s-funny” TV movie “Summer Dreams”.
Thankfully, when 2010 rolled around, we weren’t subjected to another hack TV movie full of fake beards and “edgy” references to Charles Manson.
Some 15 years later, we have the very different, and in every way superior film “Love & Mercy.” To even discuss the film in the context of those TV movies seems rather ill-advised. The film has little in common in any way with those older films. The context that those older clunkers do give to “Love & Mercy” is that fans finally have a “biopic” (a term reviewers all seem to agree is not really the right term) that is actually art, and that fans don’t have to be embarrassed about or hope that it’s so bad that it can at least get a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.
Director Bill Pohlad has taken what many learned fans would agree is the correct approach: He doesn’t try to shoehorn in a very dense, dramatic 50-plus year history of Brian and the Beach Boys into a two hour film. Rather, Pohlad has tapped two different actors to play Brian during, for the most part, two key periods: The 1966-67 “Pet Sounds/Smile” period, and the 1986-1992 “Landy Years” period (which are more or less condensed into a year or so). These year markings are rough; years are rarely if ever mentioned (and are especially jumbled during the “Landy” years), and the narrative does touch on some periods outside of these timeframes.
I purposely stayed away from reading a ton of detailed reports of the film during or after filming, as well as detailed reviews of the film once it started getting screenings. I obviously knew the basic setup and all of the general details. But I went into this film relatively “spoiler free.”
As many have noted, the film constantly jumps between the two “time periods”, and this is done quite effectively. I took a non-superfan with me, and they did not have any problem following the narrative. While this film isn’t a traditional “biopic” and is certainly about emotion and ambience and atmosphere, it isn’t any sort of experimental, mind-bending film. I mean this in a good way. It’s art, and it’s unconventional for a “biopic”, but it’s not some avant-grade lump of nonsense. It has heart and emotion and is easy to digest.
Paul Dano plays the “60’s” Brian. Dano easily provides the best portrayal of Brian on film to date. They’ve done a good job of giving him the right “look”, with an appropriate hair style and numerous wardrobe nods to known photos of Brian and in general a good eye towards wardrobe and set design (for both time periods). Dano also offers a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal. He’s sometimes weaker and emotional (when confronted by “authority”), but also has periods of self-confidence and actual forward-thinking thoughts that don’t just reek of hippie-dippie nonsense. He also portrays Brian’s eccentricities with sympathy. One of the keys of the writing and Dano’s performance is that the film delineates the different aspects of Brian’s odd behavior rather than lumping it all together: Sometimes he’s just odd because that’s his personality, his eccentricity. Sometimes his odd behavior is due specifically to his emerging mental illness including auditory hallucinations, and at least once, his odd behavior is motivated (or amplified) by LSD.
Dano also does a good job of portraying Brian’s awkward, not always particularly actually funny, but earnest sense of humor. What about the rest of the actors during the 60’s period? Pretty much everybody else takes a backseat. One thing this film does have in common with the other films is that Al comically barely registers. I’m not sure he even had a line in “Love & Mercy.” Even the guy playing “Bruce” got a line or two. Carl and Dennis play a slightly more prominent role, being positioned alongside Brian in several key scenes. Their respective actors provide a solid service, providing the needed mixture of brotherly love, concerned bandmate, and conveying just how young all of these guys are.
As for Mike, the character who has the most potential to stir controversy (both within the film and among film-watching fans), the film actually handles Mike quite well. He’s not pushed all the way to the side; he figures as prominently if not moreso than anyone other than Brian among the band members. The film truly handles Mike as well as it possibly could. Needing to portray that Mike did have misgivings about the new musical direction of the group, the dialogue provides direct references from Mike to those misgivings. But they are done as organically as possible, and the viewer, even grizzled fans who know the full story of the group in all its gory detail, can actively empathize with Mike at several points. At one point, after Mike has helped Brian write the lyrics to “Good Vibrations”, we see Mike in the control room watching Brian spend hours perfecting the short cello parts to the song. Eventually, Mike explodes in a half-serious, half-comical moment, telling Brian they’ve spent hours on the part. This is the stuff one can empathize with.
Murry Wilson gets a few scenes. I wouldn’t even call it a weakness in the film necessarily, but Murry seems a bit shoehorned in. Apart from a more surreal bit near the end where many eras of Brian’s life converge (you’ll have to see that for yourself), Murry mostly has two key scenes in the film. In one, Brian is trying to get Murry’s opinion on “God Only Knows.” Here, we get a requisite brief bit of exposition explaining how Murry had been their manager and had been fired, etc. In another scene, Murry tells Brian about selling the song publishing catalog. The filmmakers seem to be juxtaposing Murry in the 60’s with Landy in the 80’s, and this isn’t an unfounded comparison.
Van Dyke Parks gets a few scenes, although a bit more explanation of his and Tony Asher’s roles (Asher pops up briefly as well) might have helped. In one scene, Mike offers some pretty direct criticism to Parks during a “group meeting” in Brian’s pool. It’s probably a bit more on the nose than it needed to be; Parks is essentially fired on the spot in the scene (and/or quits), literally walking away in a huff. But scenes like this, while having to compress the expositional dialogue, also provide some great symbolic moments, as Brian is positioned away from the rest of the group at the deep end of the pool, insisting everybody come over to his side.
Where the film also succeeds is its actual depiction of music. Too often, music-related films (as opposed to actual musicals) often tend to skip past the whole crux of the thing: the music itself. Thankfully, “Love & Mercy” isn’t just two hours of people *saying* how much of a musical genius Brian is. The film shows and tells us, through a number of meticulously recreated studio scenes. For once, a film has done its homework and provides not only all of correct, age-appropriate studio gear that nerds will recognize, but also uses both vintage and new recordings to meld the footage and music together and truly make the whole thing seem credible. I’m not sure what Academy Award this aspect of the film should get (Set design? Costumes/Wardrobe? Art Direction?), but it should get a nomination if not a win for whichever award is applicable.
As for the 80’s? John Cusack provides a portrayal of a mid-late 80’s Brian that may be visually less accurate (although, as Pohlad has mentioned, Brian’s appearance did indeed drastically change throughout the 80’s; Cusack actually doesn’t look terribly unlike a circa 1988 Brian), but makes up for it with nuance. Cusack goes with some subtle mannerisms and speech patterns that evoke Brian. Frankly, despite Cusack clearly going for a rather eccentric portrayal, he comes across more normal here than Brian actually did in the most of the interviews and public appearances from this time frame that fans have seen. Is Cusack ironing out Brian’s weirdness, or is this a look into the more normal, funny Brian that we rarely get to see? Either way, Cusack effectively portrays the most important aspect of this part of the story: a rather meek, confused, befuddled guy in what is essentially an elaborate version of an abusive relationship. In this case, the relationship is with Eugene Landy. Portrayed by Paul Giamatti, Landy in this film is given the needed sinister gravitas. You buy that Cusack’s Brian cowers before Giamatti’s Landy. Giamatti provides perhaps less nuance. We get less of the subversive, creepy, calm-voiced Landy doing his evil work (though that’s in the film too), and get a bit more of the ranting, screaming iteration of Landy. One can’t help but find one scene particularly tantalizing and awkward, as Melinda hands Brian a hamburger that he starts to wolf down, leading to Landy berating Brian, telling him he only *thinks* he’s hungry. The film surprisingly goes light on Landy overmedicating Brian. The references are made, and we get a couple scenes showing Brian zonked out. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, and she serves the important purpose not only within the story of working to extricate Brian from Landy’s control, but also serves as essentially the “viewer”, the sane outsider thrown into the odd world of Landy.
Music plays much less of a role in the Cusack portion of the film, relegated mainly to a quick bit with Brian playing the titular song itself in a scene with Melinda.
Are there “errors” in the facts presented in the film? There is surprisingly little in the way of nitpicky quibbles. A few are there, but the filmmakers keep it to a minimum, and I never felt like something was so drastically altered as to change the meaning of the story. The little nitpicky bits would be mostly related to compressing events within a shorter period of time. They want to keep to the 1966-67 timeframe, so Murry selling the Sea of Tunes catalog gets moved up to 1967. Little stuff like that.
What of the Atticus Ross score? Ross utilizes fragments of many Beach Boys recordings, weaving them in and out of somewhat ambient, electronica-ish musical bits. This isn’t a conventional score with orchestral cues. During the film, I found Ross’ work tantalizing, but also feel like a separate release of the score will allow much more enjoyment (and dissection). A release of the score has been rumored to be held up in the bottomless legal pit known as “awaiting BRI approval”, though Pohlad has recently said they still intend to release it. Let’s hope that happens. In addition to the actual musical content of the musical cues, the overall sound design is quite impressive. Auditory hallucinations and key vintage musical cues swoop around the sound stage. I found the surround mix in the theater I attended was a bit muted. The hallucination bits provided loud, immersive surround effects. But relatively straight vintage music interludes sounded a bit quiet, and stayed in the front speakers. I’m not sure if some of this was due to the theater I was at. The front speakers when playing vintage music could have been louder, that’s pretty much my only complaint.
I’ll leave intricate details at that to avoid even more spoilers. The film is truly a feat, not only as a film piece that finally does Brian justice, but also as a film. Aside from the Brian/Beach Boys story, this is a strong film with effective performances. It never devolves into camp. It is art. I can’t imagine a non-documentary ever getting better than this.
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