With a life like Brian Wilson’s how is it possible to depict such a thing on screen? If you want to do a good job of it you do it like this. Love and Mercy (2014) depicts two parts of Wilson’s life – namely the recording of Pet Sounds leading to his breakdown, and his introduction to Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in the 1980s who finds him under the oppressive watch of unhinged psychologist Eugene Levy (Paul Giamatti). Two Brian Wilson’s for the price of one!
By focusing on two periods of Wilson’s life, Director Bill Pohlad has his cake and eats it. The tired (if satisfying) tropes in the biographies of musicians may still be in evidence (piecing together a masterpiece in the recording studio, breakdown, rise), but the non-holistic approach of the narrative allows for plenty of space for the real life Wilson to exist between the scenes. The twin narratives are almost completely different in terms of tone, but it works so well, as if Pohlad is acknowledging the pitfalls of cutting a person’s life into the form of a music biography.
One jarring element in the film is the discrepancy between the two depictions of Wilson from Dano and Cusack. Dano physically embodies the role, with a stiff neck, soft voice, and a weight gain that is extraordinary in its attention to detail. Cusack wears short sleeve shirts and has a slurred hesitation to his dialogue, but after that it’s very much a Cusack performance, tics and all. This is not a bad thing, but the huge differences in performance, whilst both good in their own way, had me distracted. I had to convince myself about half way through the film that no comment was being made: Cusack embodying a washed out 80s, the decade that brought him – Cusack – to fame? Meta Wilson/Cusack? No, apparently not.
Paul Giamatti’s performance as the terrifying Eugene Levy may raise eyebrows but according to Pohlad, who was speaking to Wilson throughout the making of the film, they had to dial back from 11 to 9 for Levy to work as a believable character.
There is a risk that the film could be overreaching itself: two films for the price of one. But Pohlad does a good job of tying these stories together, even if the lead performances don’t quite provide a consistent anchor to the overall narrative. There is more than enough to fill out two films with the material that is being worked with here, which partly explains why the script for this film has been in development for several years. But Pohlad keeps it tight and loose to allow for a coherent narrative without crowbarring Wilson into a story, and doesn’t the film to be drowned in exposition. Good music too.