ReThink Review: Love & Mercy -- Mental Illness on the Beach

The songs we love have an almost magical ability to access our hearts, memories, and souls, which explains why humans will always be fascinated by musicians and filmmakers will continue to make movies about them. But despite directors' best efforts, the mystery of how music originates in a musician's mind often remains inscrutable, especially for the vast majority of us who have never written a tune. Maybe that's why we so easily talk about an artist's "vision" but don't even have a word for the sounds a musician "hears" in her head before attempting to perform them.

What I appreciate about Love & Mercy, the fantastic new film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is its assertion that true musical genius is an ineffable gift -- and potentially a curse -- bestowed upon the rare few. But the process of getting songs from a musician's mind to the listeners' ears is the knowable job of the producer, requiring his ability to recreate those mental sounds using whatever tools he deems necessary. Which for Wilson, as he recorded the Beach Boys' seminal album Pet Sounds, involved making music in ways that had never been done before. Watch the trailer for Love & Mercy below.

Instead of a more traditional biopic structure, Love & Mercy interweaves moments from the two most important periods of Wilson's life during the mid 1960s and early 1980s. Paul Dano plays Wilson in his twenties after the Beach Boys had become international stars, storming the charts with a slew of hits that immortalized the "California sound" and its images of endless summer fun, surfing, bikini-clad girls, and fast cars. But Wilson, who was beginning to show signs of the mental illness that would follow him throughout his life, made the decision to let the band tour without him so he could focus on writing new songs and recording them using studio techniques that were considered revolutionary for a pop album, including the use of orchestral instruments, complex harmonies, and even animal noises.

The second period finds John Cusack playing Wilson in his forties as he's emerging from a years-long breakdown under the oppressive care of his therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who keeps Wilson heavily medicated as he takes control of nearly every aspect of Wilson's life. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac dealer who falls in love with Wilson and attempts to free him from Landy's domineering, abusive influence.

It was definitely a risk to have two such different-looking actors playing the same person, but Dano and Cusack's performances are so fantastic and achingly sincere that it won't give you much pause, especially since they capture Wilson at such radically different stages of his life. Dano's Wilson is a force of youthful ambition, potential, and excitement as he attempts to translate the sounds in his head into music he can share with his band and the world, even as emotional scars and the mental condition that seems to be inspiring his work show the dark edges that would eventually overtake and incapacitate him. Cusack, in perhaps his most vulnerable performance to date, shows Wilson as he has only partially emerged, unrecognizable, from the wreckage of that darkness, only to be subsumed by a new darkness imposed on him by Landy, with Meredith as his sole ray of light. Banks gives a great performance that goes way beyond being a supportive girlfriend/witness, while Giamatti gives what I consider a classic Giamatti performance as the sort of raging, domineering boss/manager jerk he often played earlier in his career.

People who love movies often repeat the quote that film is a visual medium -- and for good reason. But that should not take away from the fact that sound is at least half of the experience of watching a movie, and perhaps more since a movie's images appear separated from us on a giant flat screen while sound in a modern theater happens around us in three dimensions, perfectly replicating how we perceive sound in real life. That's what makes film such a terrific medium for a story like Wilson's, a man who heard complex, swirling, multi-layered sound in his head and realized that he could reproduce what he heard if he treated the recording studio not as a room to record voices and instruments, but as an instrument itself -- a space for pure sound. Not only does Love & Mercy let us audibly experience what Wilson heard in his mind, it effectively uses a documentary shooting style to put us inside those exciting, joyful, though often contentious studio sessions as Wilson's bandmates and the best studio musicians attempted to wrap their brains around and fulfill Wilson's sonic fantasy.

With its intriguing subject, terrific performances, and willingness to take chances, Love & Mercy sets a new bar for musician biopics while thankfully avoiding the convention of attempting to encapsulate an entire career or life into one film. Two things that are exceedingly difficult to achieve in film are to bring the audience into the minds of geniuses and people with mental illness, and Love & Mercy is able to do both through the performances of Dano and Cusack, which will draw in even those whose knowledge of the Beach Boys doesn't extend beyond their biggest hits, showing how a pioneering prodigy and legend can be as fragile and yearning as any of us.

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