January 26, 2016

On Being A Beach Boy: LOVE & MERCY

Although I really liked Love & Mercy - a film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys - I have to admit a huge personal bias.

In my college days, I was fascinated with the story of Brian Wilson and his "therapist", Eugene Landy - so much so that it influenced my decision to become a therapist. (Think "someone doing right rather than someone doing wrong"). So my own personal biases may be coming into play, but even so, Love & Mercy is still a powerful film, and possibly the most underrated film of 2015.

One of the strengths of the film is how it uses two actors to play the same character at different points: the mid-1960s Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) struggling through creating Pet Sounds in the midst of his oncoming psychological burdens, and mid-1980s Brian Wilson (John Cusack) as he struggles with dealing with Landy (Paul Giamatti) and falling for Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Now, there will (and have been) the obvious this-is-a-biopic-that-gets-the-details-wrong criticisms, but Love and Mercy is not a docudrama.... it's simply a drama. Much of the film's strength comes from how it depicts how Wilson created in the studio - it's worth watching just to hear the wonderful Pet Sounds backing tracks - as it does the love story between Wilson and Ledbetter. The script never falters or descends into easy cliche, and some of the images are simply outstanding.

What makes Love & Mercy deliver are the performances - Paul Dano really captures the essence of the younger Brian Wilson: a boy always seeking approval for the unusual sounds he hears in his head. (And whose descent into mental illness is just as harrowing). There's a wonderful love of the early Wilson, and when the film documents the creation of Pet Sounds - usually simply through backing tracks - you get a sense of why the album is so highly regarded. But it's John Cusack - an actor I thoroughly dislike - who embodies the more mature Wilson so effortlessly. Yes, there are some obvious tics, but never loses charm at the expense of eccentricity.

Elizabeth Banks provides a great moral center for the film, being supportive of the elder Wilson without descending into any of the usual biopic stand-by-your-man clichés. (Wilson's first wife also comes across as very warm and amenable). Even Giamatti's portrayal as Landy never descends into cliché, yet still has a strong, almost intimidating power.

Although I'm not an Academy Award watcher, I am thoroughly surprised that Love & Mercy is not one of the more nominated films. (Granted, they have their own issues with the nomination process right now). However, Love & Mercy is a must-watch: a powerful film that provides a great viewing experience that never descends into the usual mechanics of its genre.

Seriously. See this and then buy Pet Sounds. It's that good.

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