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Love & Mercy (2015); And Beach Boys Fandom

June 22, 2015

posterI have a long, intense relationship with the Beach Boys. Although The Beatles have my heart as favorite band of all time, the Beach Boys will always be my first love thanks to a marriage of their 1990s comeback song “Kokomo” with the Muppet’s during my childhood. The Beach Boys have always had the ability to transport me to a world that I don’t know, a world filled with surfing and California sun through brimmingly optimistic harmonies. Likewise, they have been able to encapsulate an all too familiar feeling of isolation and bouts of depressed longing in ways no other band has. Brian Wilson has been a personal therapist of mine for many years singing my deepest thoughts and feelings through a symphony of sounds.

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This deep fandom is largely the reason I experienced such a strong spiritual connection with Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, a story that attempts to examine and display the mind of the Beach Boys’ centerpiece during the height of their success along with Brian’s most down and out period of depression. Paul Dano and John Cusack take the reins playing Brian at 26 and over twenty years later in older age respectively. Pohlad and cinematographer, Bob Yeoman, use 16mm inspired filming with soft-lighting to give the 1960s scenes a fuzzy, darkly nostalgic look, while high-key lighting and digital filming during the 1980s scenes makes its story more intensifying and thrilling.

In popular culture it seems that Brian’s mental condition at times overshadows his song writing ability through sensationalized legends and retellings of his behavior. Whether these legends are true or not isn’t the point that screenwriters Michael A. Lerner and Oren Moverman try to make. Love & Mercy instead allows audiences to empathize with the man himself and understand how his condition worsened throughout the years due to outside influences. Cusack and Dano do fantastic jobs portraying Brian’s quirky nature as well as the moments of psychotic breaks he endured. Both Dano and Cusack tenderly handle their roles with career highlighting performances that humanize Brian and the mental anxieties he suffered making the subject of the film fascinating and familiar. Dano further impresses with his singing ability being able to emulate the syrupy, angelic qualities of Brian’s voice.

Love & Mercy makes it a point to let Brian’s mind be the focal point of the film thanks to brilliant sound design and editing techniques. At times, scattered, static bits of music and tunes plays from within Brian’s mind. This hones in his amazing ability to compose illustrious and complex arrangements. Scenes with session players who contributed to “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds show in detail the inner workings of Brian’s mind in the studio. We view the scope of Pet Sounds along with Brian’s keen ability to compose music in his head. Seeing the dexterity it took to achieve sounds like the plinking key strikes in “You Still Believe in Me”, made from bobby pins on piano strings, becomes an amiable reminder of the beautiful experimentation that rose in 1960s pop music.

The story of Love & Mercy finds a steady, captivating pace shortly into its two-hour run time. Initially, I feared it’d be a lopsided tale that dragged during scenes of Brian in later years.  Love & Mercy switches back and forth periodically between young Brian dealing with the pressures of creating another album among negativity from his brothers and father, edited with older Brian in the midst of a mental slump and meeting his second wife while under the legal guardianship of Gene Landry. After a while, both stories mingle almost flawlessly together adding an intense, thrilling aspect to the film in Brian’s later years.

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The supporting cast do a great job carrying their weight among a crew of fantastic performers. Paul Giamatti is stellar as a menacing doctor with questionable interest in Brian, and the story between Elizabeth Banks and Cusack becomes as fascinating to watch as young Brian’s slow descent into depression and mental illness. Equally delivering complex and memorable performances is Jake Abel as Mike Love, Brian’s older and more conservative cousin and Bill Camp as the Wilson’s domineering, manipulative father, Murry.

I admit, Love & Mercy spoon feeds the aura of Brian Wilson making him a victim for much of his life and never owning up to his own mistakes. But, ultimately that takes a backseat to the film’s larger focus on the spiritual, primordial connection to music. This film resonated with me on so many levels that I found myself tearing up numerous times throughout, sometimes at feeling grateful to see the process of some of my favorite songs being made and other times at Brian’s mirroring insatiable need to create.

Coincidentally, I watched Amadeus for the first time the night before seeing Love & Mercy and the parallels between Mozart’s need to make music with Brian Wilson’s own is uncanny. Furthermore, so is the intrinsic talent both men had, a talent that had the ability to destroy their mental capacities; that alone is the beautifully tragic nature of the subjects of both films and that’s what makes Love & Mercy such a fascinating salvation story.

SEE IT. Then listen to the Beach Boys with new, enthusiastic ears. 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 23, 2015 2:38 AM

    Very interesting. I’m a Beach Boys fan but didn’t realise this was out / coming out. I like the actors involved, usually, so I’m particularly interested in Dano playing the younger Brian Wilson.

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