Earlier this week I saw the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy and was blown away by the films ability to capture Wilson’s struggles with mental illness. I’m usually not a fan of biographical films because the filmmaker feels like they have to tell every moment of the person’s life. Instead, Love and Mercy focuses in on two key moments in Brian’s life: the birth of Pet Sounds and his struggles with mental illness in his later life. The two time periods are inter-spliced, parallel storylines that bounce off each other and cover the spectrum of Wilson – his brilliance and his insecurities.
I like to consider myself an expert on Brian Wilson (okay, I read a biography about his life – it counts!), and I went into the film with a skeptical eye but left the theater blown away by director Bill Pohlad’s ability to truly capture what made Brian tick. Don’t wait to see this movie on DVD/Netflix; the surround sound audio experience alone will help you to understand Brian’s way of hearing the world around him. Perhaps the most captivating moment is early in the movie when the screen goes black and you hear the ideas of a song growing around you, each speaker playing a melody, all eventually melding into one.
Everything about this film is perfect, especially the acting. John Cusack may not look much like an elder version of Wilson, but he sure captures the nervous ticks and internal struggles of the brilliant musician. Perhaps even more impressive was Paul Dano as a younger, more upbeat Wilson. Based off his performance, this kid has a bright future ahead of him. But my favorite performance of all had to be Paul Giamatti as Wilson’s controlling therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. I love Giamatti in everything he does (even the horrible films), and he doesn’t disappoint in Love and Mercy, viciously tearing down Wilson throughout.
The only part of the Wilson/Landy storyline that I felt needed a bit more development was their songwriting relationship. Briefly, the film shows Landy forcing Wilson to write music, but it doesn’t truly capture the all-encompassing approach Landy had with Wilson’s music. In the biography Catch a Wave: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Brian Wilson, Peter Ames Carlin reveals the crippling effect Landy had on Brian’s creative process. He tried to push Wilson into writing more pop songs rather than his lush, unpredictable arrangements. Landy included himself as co-writer on all of his songs during that time period. He even took over writing many of the lyrics, often resembling the poetry of a 12-year old.
Perhaps the most appalling creation to come out of those Landy/Wilson sessions is a song called “Smart Girls.” The song that was to be featured on Sweet Insanity (an album that the label refused to release for obvious reasons) is a rap song. Yes, a Brian Wilson RAP SONG! While the story behind the disastrous track is not clear, it can be assumed that Landy’s yearning for hit songs influenced the creation of this atrocity. I think the inclusion of this song in the film would have really showed viewers what a horrible influence Landy had on Wilson. You can listen to this song in two ways. One, you can feel sorry for Brian for lowering himself to this abysmal track. Or two, you can enjoy the song in all is ridiculousness.