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Love & Mercy

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.54 PM

“Love & Mercy” is a biopic about Brian Wilson, the genius behind “Pet Sounds” and the Beach Boys’ best songs. It’s a lesson to aspiring filmmakers on how to make an emotionally resonant, powerfully engaging biopic; instead of proceeding chronologically and hitting the main points of Wilson’s life (that kind of filmmaking is called biopic-itis) it assumes that we are pretty familiar with the Legend of Brian Wilson. We know about the abusive father, the two years in bed, the Charlie Manson days – and focuses on two periods of his life: the year or so around “Pet Sounds” and “Good Vibrations,” and then the late ’80s, when he was rescued from the control of quack psychotherapist Eugene Landy by Cadillac saleswoman and his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter.

One of the themes weaving through the film is that Wilson always hears music; there’s a soundtrack to his life playing in his head, and in his healthier, more lucid moments, he’s able to get that music out for the rest of us to hear.  It’s also why Landy misdiagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia; he hears voices. Atticus Ross, who is one of the best composers working on movies right now (he’s most famous for working on the “Social Network” score with Trent Reznor) composed the score almost entirely bits and pieces that Brian Wilson actually composed — this actually is the music Wilson was hearing in his head.  It fascinating to hear and really adds layers to the film.

The scenes of Wilson creating “Pet Sounds” are exhilarating; Dano brings just the right kind of manic energy, and director Bill Pohlad has populated the scenes with actors who let us know, in little ways, that they know they are part of something special. On the flip side, it’s terrifying to see Landy and his thugs manipulate and control him. We draw the connection to Wilson’s father in the earlier sequences, and Landy in the later ones – though Wilson’s father (played by Bill Camp) is only in two or three scenes, and hardly ever raises his voice: the director doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with the connection.

Elizabeth Banks who plays Ledbetter, is at the heart of this movie, and she is fantastic. Paul Dano and John Cusack are fine, as younger and older versions of Brian Wilson, but I don’t think it’s really that challenging to play an eccentric genius. Every actor worth their chops does it at some point in their career, and more than a few make a career out of it.  Paul Giamatti is great as Landy, but Giamatti can play this kind of barely suppressed rage in his sleep; he used to be a more interesting actor, but unfortunately has become typecast in roles like this one. But Banks’ performance has to be carefully modulated. It’s would be so easy to see her as a gold digger, or a woman with a Messiah complex.  She also has to feel real, for the sake of the film, and not like some kind of idealized lover who can save the hero from himself, basically a non-manic non-pixie dream girl. Banks is one of my favorite actresses, and I think she’s criminally underrated; she makes everything she’s in a little better.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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