Monday, 22 June 2015


Icon Film Distribution

Biopics of musicians usually follow the same template: birth, rise, fall, redemption, rise. And then possibly death. Regardless of their race, musical genre and status within music history, it too often seems that one musician's life is as standard as any other.

Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004), about the life of Ray Charles, was closely followed by James Mangold's Walk The Line (2005), about Johnny Cash, and other than the two men being of different colour, there was very little difference in either musician's life story. So it was somewhat refreshing when Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007), a biopic-of-sorts of Bob Dylan, took the almost revolutionary route of having the role performed by six different actors, male and female, black and white, child and adult.

Director Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy isn't quite so revolutionary as that film but in splitting the story of Brian Wilson, the creative force of 1960s pop sensations The Beach Boys, into two halves -- with each half having a different actor perform the main role -- much of the musical biopic cliche is avoided (although the parallels, both in story and structure, with Scott Hicks' Oscar-winning Shine (1996) are strong).

Set in the late 1960s and the late 1980s, we meet two Brian Wilsons: one (Paul Dano) at the height of his creative powers but on the verge of a breakdown; and another (John Cusack) on the other side of that breakdown trying to find his way back through a haze of medication and bad advice.

Those drugs and that advice are dispensed by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giammatti), Wilson's therapist and legal guardian. But it's when Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a one-time model now Cadillac salesperson, that the possibility of escape and new beginnings for the musician present themselves.

As good as Cusack is in these 'modern' scenes -- an at times incoherent babbler, a lost man-child -- it's Banks who really shines. Melinda may look like a Barbie doll but she's made of sterner stuff, and not one to be dissuaded from rescuing the man she's come to love even when faced with a Svengali-like Landy (Giammatti relishing the 'bad guy' role).

But it is Paul Dano who truly impresses in Love & Mercy. As the younger Wilson, Dano brings a wide-eyed innocence to the role of the musician who literally moves to his own beat; hearing things that no one else can. Of course that sensitivity also makes him vulnerable. Throw in an oppressive father and some LSD, and Wilson's breakdown -- just as his musical experimentation becomes ever bolder -- seems inevitable.

Those scenes of Brian creating and recording his music in the studio, improvising, collaborating, experimenting -- "Can we get a horse in here?!" -- are some of the film's best. Not surprisingly, Love & Mercy boasts both an excellent soundtrack as well as sound design; the growing noise in Brian's head as integral to the story as The Beach Boys' greatest hits.

If the modern scenes don't quite boast that same level of fascination, the strength of Cusack, Giammati and especially Banks' performances will keep you engaged. But like some of those great Beach Boys songs, it's the performance of Dano you won't be able to get out of your head.


  1. I just saw the movie and it was great! It's a very moving tribute to Brian Wilson and his music

  2. Thanks for the read and comment, Thomas. Glad to hear you loved the film.