Paul Dano and John Cusack brilliantly portray Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys at two very different points in his life – Dano during the creation of the masterful album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and Cusack in the 1980s, when Wilson was in terrible mental health and under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy misdiagnoses Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic, and keeps him estranged from his family for years. When Brian meets his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while buying a car from her dealership, he finds not only a soul mate empathetic to his mental illness, but someone willing to fight against the tyrannical Landy to help Brian find his way back to himself.
Jumping back and forth between time periods, the movie gives us one remarkable sequence after another, all of which feel organic and thematically connected (and not simply like a greatest-hits of major events from a person’s life, a problem in many biopics.) Just as The Beach Boys seem to be bridging apart while creating Pet Sounds, we get a perfect recreation of the music video for Sloop John B, and the power of this recreation comes not just from the beauty of the song, but from seeing the brothers as comrades – goofy, fun-loving and joyous, playing around in their backyard swimming pool.
Director Bill Pohlad has only directed one other film, but his directorial choices in this movie are so strong, you’d think he was one of our most seasoned filmmakers. Pohlad produced Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), and perhaps working with such excellent filmmakers has enabled him to make a film every bit the equal of those other masterful titles.
There’s a slow 360-shot later in the film that simply seems to take in the life and creativity flowing among the sessions band and Brian in the recording studio. Or what about the sequence near the end, in which Dano's Brian and Cusack’s Brian seem to merge when he confines himself to his bed at the height of his depression, and sees visions of characters from his past and present, beautifully set to In My Room?
So many films about geniuses – whether famous musicians or physicists (ahem, The Theory of Everything) – are simply content to show the genius completing an equation or being smarter than everyone else in the room, without bothering to actually explain what it is they do, or, even harder, help us understand how they’re doing it.
The film is such an aural experience, which is made clear by the early shot that slowly pulls out of Brian’s eardrum. It’s as much a movie to listen to as it is to watch – attuned to the sounds and noises Brian experiences in his everyday life.
Oh, but to be there and experience a picture in that new way upon its first release. I don’t want Love & Mercy to ever be “the film from last summer.” It is how I feel now, and I find myself wanting to retreat back to that quiet cinema on that peaceful summer day. I’m not ready to move on to another feeling, because it won’t be the same as that film and that cinema on that day. That’s how it feels, at least. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia for Austin kicking in. More than likely, though, it’s just the perfect combination of cinema experience and motion picture, which we so rarely get. I suppose rather than being wistful, I should be thankful – for films as good as this, and for audiences out there willing to shut out the noise and listen.
For the past few months, I've started doing video reviews for Austin Family (for whom I've been writing a film column since 2004) - here are the three inaugural reviews, of Love & Mercy, Inside Out, Aloha and Avengers: Age of Ultron.