Love & Mercy
EIFF 2015: Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson is the focus of this sympathetic biopic
Music biopics tend to benefit from being unauthorised; accessing the precious back catalogue of a pop-star usually means airbrushing out the more salacious details of their life, resulting in the blandly commercial hagiography of Walk the Line or Ray, rather than the imaginative fiction of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine or I’m Not There. Taking its title from Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s 1988 song immediately confirms that director Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy will fall into the former category. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a tortured genius battling introversion, medication and hangers-on.
Love & Mercy at least offers a creative, non-chronological take on the biopic formula. Paul Dano plays the young Wilson in the 1960s, using exacting instrumental methods to create the innovative Pet Sounds album. Meanwhile, John Cusack plays Wilson in the 1980s, anxious and neurotic, finding solace in the arms of comely Cadillac dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), while uncovering a nemesis in the form of eccentric therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
With Ledbetter playing an active role in the production of Love & Mercy, it’s not difficult to see who the heroes and villains are in Oren Moverman and Michael A Lerner’s script. Psychotherapy and medication are the problem, rather than the solution for Wilson’s issues, and the depiction of mental illness is presented in a simplistic, cut-and-dried way. But Cusack and particularly Dano both do well with different sides of Wilson’s character, connecting up his past and present selves and maintaining empathy over a tricky, bifurcated timeline.
The film's feel-good factor eventually overwhelms pretensions to art and pushes Pohlad’s film into more adulatory territory. Love & Mercy may not be the complex biographical film that Wilson deserves, but its heartfelt approach to his troubles at least makes for an entertaining watch.
Screening on Sat 20 and Thu 25 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 10 Jul.