Friday, June 5, 2015

Love & Mercy

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Bill Pohland's LOVE & MERCY, based on the life of Brian Wilson, transcends the conventions of the rock-music biopic in the same way the Beach Boys' sweet, yearning harmonies transcended the blandness and the brutality of their Southern California youth. The film is in two-part harmony: Brian the elder, a traumatized man in his 40s being dominated by self-styled psychologist Eugene Landy, and Brian the Younger, the chubby, tousled musical genius working his magic at the keyboard and in the studio, battling his inner demons and his bandmates. It's an extraordinary piece, expressing the complexities of Wilson's story and incorporating his music in unexpected and beautiful ways.

The movie's opening finds older Brian, played by John Cusack, wandering into a Cadillac dealership, where he flirts with the beautiful blond saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Brian implores her to sit in a showroom car with him, where he pours out his life to her. “My brother died,” he tells her, referring to Dennis' drowning ten years earlier. “I'm not married anymore.” Brian's stolen moment of freedom is interrupted by the sinister Dr. Landy, who introduces himself to Melinda as “Brian's brother from another mother.”

Landy was the radical therapist who was hired by Brian Wilson's first wife, Marilyn, to treat Brian, who had embarked on a three-year period of seclusion (“In My Room”) and heavy drug use in the 1970s. Landy restored the once nearly 300-pound Brian to fitness and creativity, but Brian became utterly dependent on Landy, who was later accused of brainwashing, drugging and isolating him from his family. Landy also asserted writing and producing credits and royalties from Brian's music. The movie depicts Brian as being under constant surveillance and domination by Landy and his team of minders.

The movie, written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, toggles between the awkward, nascent romance of Brian and Marilyn, who pushes back against Landy's control, and the eventful 1960s Beach Boys days. Brian has an acute anxiety attack on an airplane, and tells his bandmates (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin, Mike Love and their friend, Al Jardine) that he doesn't want to tour anymore. “I'm going to make the greatest album ever made,” he promises them, provided they let him stay home and write. “I will have stuff for you that will blow your minds.”

The album is Pet Sounds, regarded by some as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, the Pohland re-creates, with impeccable accuracy, the recording sessions, masterminded by Brian's eccentric musical ideas and the skillful playing of the Wrecking Crew players. All that remains for the rest of the Beach Boys to do is add their vocals. The Beach Boys essentially becomes the "Brian Wilson project." Brian's grows increasingly detached from his wife and daughters, and from reality.

Young Brian may be regarded as a genius, but he never gets the approval he craves from his dad, Murry, played with cruel chilliness by Bill Camp. “It's a suicide note,” he remarks when Brian plays him the sadly sweet “God Only Knows.” (“If you should ever leave me/Though life would still go on, believe me/The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me?”) Sitting on the couch in pajamas, glass of whiskey in hand, Murry bitterly denounces Brian and the band, who have fired him as their manager. “Families don't fire their own father!” The story of Murry's abuse has been told many times, including in two made-for-television movies, but it retains the power to shock. On a dinner date, Cusack's older Brian describes to Melinda the impact of his father's punches ("Pow!"), one of which may have caused Brian's near-deafness in one ear. “It scared me into making good records,” he says.

The interweaving of the earlier and later parts of Brian's life is exquisitely handled, as Melinda works behind the scenes to wrest Brian from Landy's captivity (“I pulled him out of the grave and taught him how to live again!”) and young Brian fights for control over his mind and his music, against his growing mental illness and his bandmates' protests over his control over the Beach Boys music, away from the fun-sun-surf records that made them famous and into uncharted musical territory. “We're not surfers, we never were,” Brian says. “Real surfers don't listen to us.” Mike Love (Jake Abel) points out that Pet Sounds didn't sell, even if the critics loved it. “You're letting us down,” he complains.

Murry, meanwhile, injects a bitter note by playing for Brian a single by his new, Beach Boys-lite band, the Sunrays (“I Live for the Sun”), and delivering the news that he has sold the Beach Boys' publishing rights, which he says will “never amount to anything.” (The timing of these events is compressed.) Needless to say, Murry Wilson, a songwriter who pushed his sons to musical success, was never a candidate for Father of the Year. (He died in 1973, and was remembered by Brian as “a great musician” who gave his sons “ambition.”)

Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Landy is a little too “Dr. Evil” — there's nothing to suggest the charisma, if that's what it was, that led Brian to like and trust the counterculture shrink. Still, it's an arresting, often frightening performance that, were Landy alive, would probably provoke a libel suit. Brian's background as a son abused by his father no doubt primed him for control and abuse by another trusted father figure. It's sobering to consider how often parental abuse is behind extraordinary pop music success (see The Jackson Five).

Coming off the success of “Good Vibrations,” his ambitious “pocket symphony to God,” Brian sets out to record the album Smile, an ambitious, wide-ranging effort incorporating psychedlia, doo-wop, Ragtime, early American folk, classical, avant-garde and musical acoustics and the songwriting collaboration of the brilliant Van Dyke Parks (Max Schneider). The album, plagued by internal friction, substance abuse and draft battles, Brian's increasingly erratic behavior, Capitol Records' resistance and other factors, was never completed except in an abbreviated form called Smiley Smile. Smile remains one of rock's greatest “lost” albums.

All of this crescendoes into a brilliant depiction of Brian's burgeoning psychosis, a montage of voices, music and images that haunt him in his bed. The sequence is worthy of the finest art cinema.

The filmmakers' attention to detail is impressive, especially the re-creation of early and mid-'60s fashions and décor, as well as the physical resemblances of the players to the people they portray. The standout is Paul Dano, who looks strikingly like young Brian, in his doubleknit Pendleton shirts and chinos, and is convincing as the tortured genius. Cusack could possibly be taken for an older Paul Dano, but he doesn't resemble Brian Wilson. Just the same, with his melancholy Buster Keaton eyes and soft voice, Cusack is touching as a damaged man haunted by his past and unable to free himself from his present.

It isn't exactly true that Melinda, now happily married to Brian, single-handedly freed him from Landy's control — it was the Wilson family who took the lead in banishing Landy. But the movie's narrative, and its title suggesting a Pietà with Melinda cradling the fallen pop star, echoes the peculiar combination of sunlight and sorrow that characterizes the Beach Boys' music. 3 3/4 out of 4 stars.


  1. Wonder if the temptation was to call this movie HEROES AND VILLAINS. I’m so shockingly old I can remember when the Dr. Eugene Landy/Brian Wilson drama was subject of TV investigative reports a la the Michael Jackson scandal. Maybe because Dr. Landy was never shown on camera I tended to have mixed feelings about his villainy; sure, he sounded like a creepy opportunist, but on the other hand if it weren’t for him getting Brian Wilson vertical and out of bed, the musician would have died long ago. And I’m the sort who agrees with Scientologists when it comes to low opinion of the psychiatric profession. Am I just naive? This decent movie will probably be forgotten under all the summer blockbuster tonnage, but I still wish hipsters would make a meme out of saying “As long as it’s okay with Dr. Landy,” or “If Dr. Landy says so” as an all-purpose response to every declarative statement. That would be a backhanded tribute. Fine job by Mr. Cusack, though I always felt that perfect casting for stricken Brian Wilson would have been post-SNL Bill Murray, before his dramatic talents were fully realized. He’d have the tics and the slightly sad, addled bewilderment down just right...As long as Dr. Landy said it would be okay.

  2. I remember those days too, Charles! If this movie is a psychogram, it seems there's a connection between Brian Wilson's experience of his dad (mentor/tormentor) is mirrored by his relationship to Dr. Landy. His feelings about both men, postmortem, seem to be similarly mixed. The villainy of the part, as embodied by Paul Giamatti, is heavy-handed; if he'd had a mustache, he'd have twirled it.

    As for Bill Murray, maybe -- but his persona is too cynical. Maybe just some aging makeup on Paul Dano, who was pretty fantastic.

  3. I saw this today and it was great. The movie changes moods between musical drama, thriller and romance film but it's a very satisfying film.


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