Biopic “Love & Mercy” Applies Musical Genius of Brian Wilson to Cinematic Storytelling

There is a moment late in the second act of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy where everyone is celebrating the success of the Good Vibrations single and lyricist Van Dyke Parks is tasked with describing the next project, which Brian wants to call SMiLE. Parks describes it as a mixture of various artists ranging from Phil Spektor to Beethoven (I have no chance of re-producing the exact sequence here, and can’t find it online, but it is a cool little line). Similarly, Love & Mercy can be described as a mishmash of Amadeus, A Beautiful Mind, and Shine – with elements of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and even 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is rarefied air, but entirely deserved, and the film should please both die-hard fans of The Beach Boys as well as general audiences with its unique style of musical storytelling and parallel story structure.

The structure of the film is quite unique, as it attempts to tell two linear stories interwoven together. One half of the story begins on December 23, 1964 when young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) has a panic attack on a plane and primarily deals with the production of the Pet Sounds album. The other half begins circa 1985 and dramatizes old Brian Wilson’s (John Cusack) burgeoning relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and struggle to escape from the overbearing control of his psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, channeling Louise Fletcher). These stories are told in parallel, and the transitions between them are both stylistic and thematic, oftentimes intimating a connection between the two time periods. Debate can exist over which of the sequences is stronger, but the full beauty of Love & Mercy lay in how they interact to form a single coherent story about a tortured genius and his struggle with mental illness.

One cannot speak about the film without trumpeting the power of the music. Nearly all of the music is diegetic (meaning it originates from the world of the film) and most is drawn from the discography of The Beach Boys themselves (or studio sessions). This instills the world of Love & Mercy with a distinct sense of realism, and is an inspired choice from director Bill Pohlad.  In addition, using tunes which are so well-known creates a feeling of familiarity in the audience – forcing us to feel the weight of the narrative on a much more personal level.  And both of these effects are reinforced by Pohlad’s use of a handheld camera for most of the studio session scenes. Further, as we are privy to the generation of a number of these hits, we come to understand the genius of Wilson as the result of his illness and creativity wrestling with each other – resulting in masterpieces like Good Vibrations and God Only Knows.

There is more to celebrate about Love & Mercy, and the film will definitely reward repeat viewings, but upon a single viewing I keep coming back to the final shot of the film. Not spoiling anything, I believe that even casual fans of The Beach Boys will notice the omission of a certain song, which is not included in any of the studio sessions or any other part of the narrative. It is almost as though Pohlad is saving it for something special. When the opening bars to this song emerge from somewhere outside of the world of the film, the dramatic and thematic statement is at once startling and logical – the only conclusion available to close such a beautiful marriage of film and music.

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