Love & Mercy

“These things I’ll be until I die”

Dir: Bill Pohlad

2015, River Road Entertainment, USA

Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks

The genius of The Beach Boys 1966 magnum opus, Pet Sounds, exists in the details of its composition. With Flourishes of bravado between simple piano chords, and swift changes in key and octave, the music that Brian Wilson composed thrived on the spaces between notes, filling the void with elaborate whispers of noise or ethereal melodies. The young Wilson painstakingly scrutinised every dimension of his own compositions, both in order to eliminate mistake and reveal opportunity. The most intricate factors of each song would be discussed with an ensemble cast of session musicians, be it the particular rhythm a cellist bowed at or the complex exchange of notes by the woodwind section, everything in the record is meant to be.

For its time and still now, Pet Sounds is an incredibly adventurous album. Paul McCartney once claimed that centrepiece God Only Knows was his favourite song, and for a time The Beach Boys, but predominantly Wilson, would find something close to the colossal success of the Beatles, all the while remaining widely critically acclaimed. The full extent of Wilson’s steady decline is still unclear, a potent concoction of underlying mental illness, the pressures of fame, and an abusive father all contributing in their own unique way to the deterioration of both band and bandleader.

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Love & Mercy, the recently released Wilson biopic, depicts both the recording of the landmark album and the aforementioned breakdown alongside a future narrative concerning a love interest and Wilson’s unusual relationship with his manipulative therapist. The film alternates between these two timelines to explore both the legacy of Wilson and the strange period of his life that followed the music. Both undertake very different tones and means of expression however, the recording process and the evolution of the Beach Boys sound is a hazy recreation of creative energy, and a love letter to the time and person that produced it. Whilst the second narrative, takes a more conventional approach to detailing the circumstances that led to Wilson meeting his current wife, alongside a retelling of the malicious exploitation of Wilson by his therapist, Eugene Levy, whose unethical and unorthodox methods of treatment spilled into manipulation for monetary gain, and possibly something darker. Regardless of the interesting subject matter, the second strand of narrative is substantially weaker than the first, a sentimental Hollywood romance that smother the barbed subject matter.

The two distinct sections of the film feel so unnecessarily forced together, the seams between them prominent and jarring. Love & Mercy is essentially two different films, and no matter how much producer-turned-director Bill Pohlad tries to coerce them together, they remain far better separate, heavily in the favour of the former. The 60’s era is precisely recreated, the acting far superior and the music utilised in a more organic way. Paul Dano inhabits the spirit of the young Wilson and gives an admittedly very good performance, depicting his rise to the stratosphere in a dazzling and lucid manner. Then, suddenly, Wilson is a weathered John Cusack, and any semblance of character that had been established is dashed and a moody and pensive performance interrupts the erratic and charming one.

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This is not a peaceful coalition, the conflict between tones and ideas is overpowering and difficult to ignore, but rather than dedicate the entire article to this rift, I would instead like to explore the few virtues that occur in Love & Mercy. The aforementioned performance by Dano was the first of these, an engrossing convergence between innocence and suffering and the resulting genius – a Wilson that gleefully laughs after receiving praise from a hero and exudes the charismatic enthusiasm of a composer in his prime, but also one who is at the will of his own mental state, complete with outbursts of rage and harrowing moments of helplessness.  Another round of applause must go to the sound design, both in the moments of wonder that wash over Wilson in moments of inspiration and the shrieking screams of a breakdown. Into these traditional uses of sound are worked the harmonies, melodies and rhythms of Beach Boy classics, a collage of diagetic and non diagetic sound that aptly represents the concept of revelation through the intelligent use of popular music.

Also notable are the moments of experimentation that are undertaken in the Pet Sounds narrative – a long rotating shot around a hostile studio and a feverish sequence of editing that accompanies the scenes of mental unrest being most impressive. It seems that this section and its subject matter allow for a more interpretive and expressive depiction of the character, one based off myth, legacy and nostalgia rather than the well documented nature of its contemporary narrative. As well as mimicking and reflecting the playful nature of Pet Sounds this experimentation allows for the cast and artistic crew to indulge and to have fun with the depiction. However, where ‘Pet Sounds’ is playful it is elsewhere incredibly sad, and Love & Mercy’s loftiest achievement can be found in its treatment of mental illness. Both narratives can be praised in this sense, both able to handle a representation of confusion, dependence and volatility in a caring manner that does not patronise or victimise.

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So, if the details of the record ‘Pet Sounds’ were its defining feature, then this can readily be applied to Love & Mercy as well. Where the music of Brian Wilson blossomed in its experimentation, so too does Love & Mercy. Both are exceptional in their weirder moments, but when Love & Mercy chooses a more traditional and conservative style it suffers invariably. If Pohlad had scrutinised each detail of the weaker half of his film as he had done with the stronger, then we may have seen a fantastically constructed, abstract character biopic that uses time as a means of expression and not as a device to separate. It is difficult to imagine Love & Mercy as reaching a Pet Sounds level of vitality and legacy, but had it been handled in a manner similar to its object of relevance, one which encourages pure creativity and spontaneous inventiveness, then it might have at least been on its way.

It is a strange thing, a film ruined by its determination to be conventional, when there is so obviously an artistic soul desperate to escape, but Love & Mercy is just that. Eternally let down by its other half, one wonders if this was the result of studio or estate meddling, a desire not to offend or displease, or whether this is simply an example of bad directing. Love & Mercy is infuriating in the sense that it captures the tone necessary to convey the vision of Wilson, but lets this slip through its grasp to instead present facts and information. The film dismisses any interpretative sense when it ends, and a title card tells you the exact outcome of a brilliantly ambiguous final shot.

  • Kristofer Thomas

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