At some point, there will be written a tome that properly addresses the bipolarity of pop music – how the combination of major and minor chords has resulted in a song for more or less every opposing emotion. It caused him considerable anguish, this we know, but perhaps it was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who understood the phenomenon best of all: it may be why a song like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” can sound buoying (ain’t it sweet to dream?) or heartbreaking (doesn’t reality suck?) depending upon the circumstances in which one hears it.
The new Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, and directed by Bill Pohlad – deploys a structural device that ensures it’s particularly attuned to these highs and lows, running two versions of its subject alongside one another, the better to heighten the contrast. We join Wilson (Paul Dano) in his mid-60s pomp, striving with “Pet Sounds” to move the band away from the surfer hits with which they made their name and fortune, and towards what he hopes will be the greatest record of all time.
While he’s heading for a breakdown, Pohlad flips to this story’s B-side: Wilson as he was in the mid-80s (John Cusack), subsisting under the quote-unquote care of quote-unquote doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a physician who knows he’s onto a good thing. It’s around this moment that Wilson crossed paths with car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and begins feeling his way back towards something akin to a normal life: a re-release, as it were.
If Dano and Cusack don’t immediately appear an obvious physical match, these intelligent performers find ways to tessellate. What links these Wilsons is a soft-spoken spaciness: it’s a biopic that insists mental instability in our musicians need not necessarily mean Beethoven-in-Immortal Beloved wildness, but could just present as hypersensitivity. (Is it possible Wilson heard the voices he did because one ear was overcompensating for the other, boxed into disrepair by his brute of a father?)
Dano surfs that relaxed California vibe – coaxing a dog to bark in the recording booth, he’s no more out-there than the average Monkee – until he starts taking too much on, be it pop operettas or LSD; Cusack aces arguably the tougher assignment – having to play a man subject to an extensive (and erroneous) program of medication – in bringing the damaged, scared mortal behind the dope into clear focus: you won’t ever have seen this actor so rattled on screen.
There could still be room for a biopic that takes us further inside Wilson’s head as the sunny Sixties gave way to the dark, paranoid Seventies, but Pohlad proves good on process. He finds new takes on the music by situating the young Wilson in the studio, laying down the instrumentals for “God Only Knows” et al (“Even the happy songs are sad!” protests Mike Love), and then, in the 1980s scenes, by honing in on the trust-building that goes into any rehabilitation narrative.
It helps that Cusack’s Wilson has a never-lovelier Banks sitting alongside him at the piano stool: her Melinda, trailing her own heartbreak, is evidently attracted to Wilson’s gentleness, but Banks makes that attraction feel like a conscious choice on the part of a woman who knows exactly what she’s taking on – to the extent that she knows she may, at some point, have to walk away. It’s their unusual, affecting love story that provides the film with its heart, and Banks really will make you wish they all could be Californian girls.
Demons and monsters aren’t far away, of course. Through the Landy character, Love & Mercy can evoke the altogether unhealthy control particular to the entertainment industry; it’s also a sign of how well-versed Moverman and Lerner are in pop history that the spectre of Spector (Phil), one of several figures against which the boy Wilson measured himself, can loom off-screen throughout, himself pushing too hard in making “River Deep, Mountain High” (more peaks and troughs).
Mostly, though, the material is tuned towards celebrating a figure who emerged from his mental miasma clutching one hell of a legacy (the songs sound as good in Dolby as they’ve ever done) and the exact right person to accompany him into an encore. Love & Mercy isn’t just a timely counterpoint to the downward spiral of last week’s Amy; it’s one of the most human stories Hollywood has attempted in some while, right through to an ending that, this once, is indisputably happy.
(MovieMail, July 2015)
Love & Mercy screens on BBC2 at 10.15pm tonight, and will be available on iPlayer for the next month.