Review: ‘Love & Mercy’ Is A Musical Biopic For The Ages

Walker Sayen ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Paul Dano in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
Paul Dano in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
The biopic is one of the hardest genres to pull off. The film has to accurately depict the life of a real person, while also making a dramatically compelling motion picture. This causes some biopic movies to become merely history lessons; a series of greatest hits moments from cradle to grave. And while it’s always nice to learn about historical figures and the things they accomplished, that’s not really a film; a story that explores the nuance of character and has dramatic structure. Many biopics go the opposite direction as well, and create a mostly fictionalized version of a person’s life. And while changing major events in order to create a more cinematically structured film might help the movie in one respect, the film will inevitably generate a lot of controversy and criticism for falsifying a person’s life. It is a tricky line to tread, between reality and fiction, when recreating real events. The biopics that truly succeed, like Lawrence of Arabia and, more recently, Selma, succeed because the films transcend the fact that they are historical recreations and become instead great stories about people and times that reflect the complex themes of our times. The new film, Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is one such film. Not only does it bring a new level of understanding to the life of a famous musician, but it also works as a character piece about passion, music, mental illness, and human connection.
The main reason the movie works so well is because it takes an untraditional approach to telling a real life story. Instead of telling the entire life story of Brian Wilson, or just taking one moment of his life to focus on, the film instead divides the story into two sections of his life, with two different actors playing Wilson. The first is a 1960’s set story that depicts the making of the great Beach Boy’s album Pet Sounds with Paul Dano as Wilson. And the second is a 1980’s story with John Cusack as Wilson that depicts his harmful relationship with Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), and the budding romance with his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that would save him. By intercutting these two parts of Wilson’s life, and finding interesting juxtapositions between cause and effect that compliment each other, the film creates a “whole” that has a lot more substance than if each story had been told by itself. Just like Brian Wilson’s famous harmonies, the two interwoven stories play off each other and create a fully satisfying experience.
John Cusack in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
John Cusack in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
The film also triumphs on the strength of its two lead performances. Paul Dano is able to create a nuanced portrait of a musical genius struggling with how to get the sounds and melodies swirling around inside his head out into the world, and John Cusack has not given such a good performance in years. Not only is Cusack’s performance a return to form, it is simply one of the best performances of the year, and deserves serious awards consideration.
But the film is not just an actors vehicle, it is immaculately crafted as well by director Bill Pohlad, who is mostly known as a producer of other peoples work, such as films by Ang Lee, Steve McQueen and Terrence Malick. But Pohlad is able to create his own style that is not too fancy, but serves the story to a tee. He uses a kind of documentary, archival footage quality for a lot of the 1960’s set sequences which really adds a nice personal tone to the proceedings, while also using steady, unrushed camerawork that puts a lot of focus on the characters to capture the intimacy of the relationships on screen.
Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy. Photo Credit: River Road Entertainment.
But the real reason to make sure to see Love & Mercy on the big screen, and not on a home TV, is the sound design. It makes sense that a movie about a man who has been so pioneering in the melding of sounds, and who also personally dealt with auditory hallucinations, has such a unique and carefully designed soundscape. It is a great pleasure to listen to how Poland and his sound team mix and interweave the music during the scenes depicting the making of Pet Sounds. The film perfectly re-creates what it must have been like to be inside Wilson’s mind as he dreams up the amazing arrangements. And beyond the recording sessions, the sound is able to expertly put the audience in Wilson’s head as he starts to deteriorate and suffer auditory hallucinations. The entire film just has a marvelously unique and precisely crafted world of audio that deserves to be experienced in a theater.
Overall, a brake from all of the explosions and eye candy that the summer cineplexes are known for, Love & Mercy is a breath of fresh summertime air. Wouldn’t it be nice if all biopics were as creative and unique as Love & Mercy? Well, one can dream.
Overall Grade: A 
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