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It’s a cliché for biopics about musicians to follow the same sort of Behind The Music narrative structure – tracing the pattern of initial hardship, followed by rise to success, followed by superstardom, followed by self-destruction, followed by redemption – but that structure is far too simple to portray the life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. The real legend of the singer/songwriter/composer is actually almost too incredible to believe, as it’s a tale of serious mental illness, intense abuse, and, of course, deep and passionate musical genius. And it’s a story that comes together in brilliant and emotional fashion in the new movie Love & Mercy, which had its United States premiere this week at SXSW.
Unfolding as a dual narrative, the Bill Pohlad-directed movie follows Brian Wilson through two of the most significant time periods in his life. In the 1960s, Wilson is played by Paul Dano, and the audience is made witness to the birth of what is surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made, "Pet Sounds," all while also watching the brilliant musician struggle with his bandmates, his domineering father, and creeping mental issues. This narrative is interspersed with Wilson’s experience during the 1980s, where he is portrayed by John Cusack, and shown to be caught between two dueling sides: his intensely controlling therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who constantly shoves pills down his throat to keep him sedated and confused; and a young woman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), whom Wilson meets at a Cadillac dealership and falls in love with. These two narratives come together to show the full picture of the musician’s life, and it’s a rather fantastic thing to behold.
As with any biopic, the film can be heavily judged based on the portrayal at its center, and both Paul Dano and John Cusack give equally brilliant performances that show widely different sides and aspects of Brian Wilson’s life. Charged with showing the more creative, artistic side of the Beach Boys singer/songwriter, Dano’s turn is filled with incredible energy and life, and even while the character is slowly starting to lose his bearings, it’s still magical to watch him operate inside of a recording studio and work to create some of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Cusack is given what is arguably the more challenging role, as it requires him to be a great deal more subdued and emotionally distant, but we still connect with him as Wilson, and he is still able to create sparking chemistry with Elizabeth Banks (who puts on a terrific turn in her own right). Admittedly, the significant differentials in both portrayals does create a certain distance created between the two sides of story, but it’s never significant enough to make you feel as though you’re watching a biopic about two different subjects instead of just one.
Of course, on beyond the drama it would have been irresponsible of Bill Pohlad to make Love & Mercy without injecting it with the music that made its central subject beloved by millions of fans throughout the world, and the soundtrack does fully take advantage of The Beach Boys’ legendary sound. But not only is it amazing and fascinating to watch the genus Wilson at work creating tracks like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn’t It Be Nice," Pohlad also uses these songs to create an emotional link between the audience and the movie. Anyone who grew up listening to The Beach Boys and appreciating Wilson’s contribution to music will immediately understand and connect with the film’s protagonist, having spent years understanding and connecting with lyrics about not just surf, sun, and California girls, but also great love and deep melancholy.
While many SXSW films from this year’s slate will leave the festival with unclear futures, Love & Mercy is already set to arrive in theaters on June 5th, and it’s well-worth anticipating. It’s a great movie with fascinating subject matter – really regardless of whether or not you’re a big Beach Boys fan – and, simply put, how to do a biopic right.