AKA: Love and Mercy
Like the waves of the ocean that inspired so many of The Beach Boys' earliest hits, Love & Mercy moves back and forth in time between two of the most pivotal decades in the life of its subject Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano in the 1960s and John Cusack in the 1980s).
As multilayered as one of Wilson's symphonic Pet Sounds compositions that likewise move between multiple time signatures and keys, Tree of Life producer Bill Pohlad's phenomenal true life tale is a wonderful labor of love.
Experimental but still both palatable and accessible to viewers more accustomed to the traditional extended flashback formula often employed in contemporary biopics, while Love & Mercy may indeed "get around" in its chronology, it never wanders out too far off the deep end, learning a valuable lesson from the overly fragmented Bob Dylan opus I'm Not There which was partially penned by Love co-writer Oren Moverman.
Helping to ease the transitions in time by shooting a majority of the earlier sequences on Super 16 millimeter film, frequent Wes Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeoman infuses his '60s set footage with vibrant, nostalgic golden light to shower Wilson with (as he famously sang) "the warmth of the sun."
And since we're missing a good decade of drama, Yeoman's innovative and impressionistic lensing not only emphasizes the changes in Wilson's life but it also serves as a painterly shortcut for the audience. Inviting us to read between the lines of drama left on the cutting room floor, we're struck by the weight of Wilson's offscreen loss and heartbreak through the stark and sudden shift in both color and camera.
Replacing the brilliant glow of loved ones who'd filled his younger years with harmony, music, laughter, love, and sunlight with the harshness of cool blues and white prescription pill hued overcast light makes us acutely aware of the isolation felt by Wilson under the care of a domineering psychiatrist (played by Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s during one of the bluest periods of his life.
However, even though Love & Mercy is centered on Brian Wilson, the surprising heroine of Pohlad's picture is Wilson's then-girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (beautifully portrayed by Elizabeth Banks) who helped liberate her future husband from his overly controlling doctor/legal guardian.
From one of Love's earliest scenes where the two meet in a Cadillac showroom to their tentative escape from one of the doctor's spies by diving into the same waves he'd sung about decades before, given the role that love played in liberating Wilson, Mercy is thematically on par with the impressive if more traditionally structured Johnny Cash endeavor Walk the Line.
Featuring one of John Cusack's strongest turns in years, although Love & Mercy plays even better to Brian Wilson devotees (myself included) who have a greater frame of reference for details about the composer's past that are only briefly referenced in the film's dialogue, Pohlad's sensitively drawn portrait nonetheless remains one of the best musical biopics that I have seen in quite some time.
Unlike some genre efforts that get so caught up in the drama that the music nearly becomes an afterthought, the filmmakers behind Love & Mercy allow Wilson's creative process to guide some of the film's most inspiring and memorable sequences.
Rather than focus on music video style montages of screaming fans and tour dates or settle for the "a-ha" light bulb moments of brilliance that gave birth to a hit song, Pohlad and Moverman celebrate all aspects of Wilson's musical genius while presenting the soundtrack of The Beach Boys as a vital part of his biography.
Racing to keep up with the music and voices in his mind (that would later lead to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia), we travel with the gifted Paul Dano's '60s era Wilson from one studio to the next several times per song and watch in awe as he layers impromptu inventions and multiple "pet sounds" on top of one another to result in an endless harmony.
Trying to turn mistakes into instrumental beauty and dissonant noises into sweet melodies, as masterful as the movie is, in the end perhaps Love & Mercy's greatest feat is the way that it enhances our understanding of Brian Wilson's lush pop music symphonies.
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