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LOVE AND MERCY Heroes and Villains


Directed by Bill Pohland

Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks

A biopic can be a dangerous proposition. Too little information and you are presenting a Cliff Notes version of someone’s life. Too much and you reach the heights of ponderousness as you stretch to epic minutia. Director Bill Pohland hits the Goldilocks zone by concentrating on two key aspects of Brian Wilson’s life, to tell a tale of the musician’s breakdown and eventual recovery.

Set across two periods in time, we meet the young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) at the height of his Beach Boys fame, as he decides to spend more time in the studio to work on the upcoming album Pet Sounds. We also see the older Wilson (John Cusack) in the ‘80s, as he falls for a luxury car saleswoman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). As we switch in between the two time periods, we see how Wilson’s work pressures, drug use and mental health issues have lead to this talent being kept in a bizarre bubble of isolation by the controlling Dr Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Love And Mercy is a deconstruction of the musical biography. Instead of leading the audience by the hand through the life of its star, and by inference through a greatest hits album, Pohland seeks to tell the tale of a man’s mental breakdown and his extraordinary reconstruction. Coincidentally, along the way he also covers all the points that you would expect of such a biopic (as well as the beloved songs of the period), touching on them tangentially and even unexpectedly. It is like a carefully constructed background track from which the song eventuates, and it is little surprise that much of the dramatic elements we see from the era of Pet Sounds and the aborted (well, much delayed) Smile project revolve around the studio recordings of these. Hence instead of launching straight into Good Vibrations, we see the tears and sweat behind getting that cello staccato in the chorus. We see behind the magic trick to the effort and labour placed into it, therefore appreciating the mental toll on Wilson’s psyche, exacerbating his mental health issues, and leading to a breakdown.

Casting two separate actors for the part is a device that should not work. Both Cusack and Dano are distinct, sharing little in terms of facial similarity, personality or mannerisms. Yet surprisingly this difference does work, highlighting the change in the man after a fractious event and allowing a separation between these two key aspects of Wilson’s life that Love And Mercy is exploring. Dano captures more the spirit of the younger Wilson, but Cusack brings a sense of honest fragility to the character. As the two stories draw more on each other, there is a bridging event, allowing the audience to experience this transition, and to bring the two actors closer together.

Love And Mercy is a clever telling, full of visual and aural innovation to match its subject matter, and one that will challenge the music biopic genre in the future.


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