Wednesday, June 10, 2015

[Review] Love & Mercy

The music biopic is a tough thing, and the mere thought of it has become played out, especially when last year alone there were at least 3 or 4 of them released and they all came up flat or had mixed results. Now we have one revolving around Brian Wilson, the complex mastermind of the The Beach Boys. And in a relief, the film avoids most of the biopic pitfalls and is a very interesting portrait.

The narrative alternates between two different time periods. One takes place in the '60s during the making of the brilliant, innovative all-time classic album Pet Sounds. Paul Dano plays a young Brian Wilson, and the film delves into his complicated and demented psyche--including the voices in his head and his trips with drugs. The other period is set in the '80s and details Wilson (now played by John Cusack) & Melinda's (Elizabeth Banks) romance and eventual marriage. Wilson's assumed paranoid schizophrenia continues here, as he battles with medication cocktails and his manipulative doctor/manager/guardian (Paul Giamatti).

Judging by the trailer, it seemed as if though the alternating timelines might be an awkward strategy, but it works pretty well. The back & forth jumps inform each other and the seams are somewhat tied together so it doesn't feel disjointed. And aside from being very well-shot, the film never is cartoony or caricature-y like some music biopics. There's an apparent genuineness to it, and it stays rooted in the character drama, never getting glossy. In fact, this film is really dark, melancholy, and unsettling for the most part. It actually gets real weird with its editing techniques toward the end.

Fans of the band will surely enjoy the jam sessions. It's quite riveting to see the reenactments of Wilson sporadically yet specifically orchestrating future Pet Sounds songs and purveying the radical departure in style. And there's one extremely poignant scene when Wilson performs a new song he's working on in front of his cantankerous and abusive father. His father essentially trashes the song... And the song in question is "God Only Knows".

Paul Dano and John Cusack are both tremendous. Dano is delirious and trance-like with his speech, but he manages to do most of the work in silence, conveying a lot of stuff going on in his mind through his eyes and facial expressions. John Cusack skillfully demonstrates a worn out man who just has something "off" about him. Of course, general opinions on Brian Wilson's real character vary depending on whom you ask, but here we witness someone who is intriguing and sympathetic.

Love & Mercy is definitely one of the better music biopics out there. It doesn't just run through the motions--it spins them on their head and adds bicycle bells and dog whistles.


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