Issue 6: Analysis—Love & Mercy (2014)

This issue, we come up-to-date with analysis of Love & Mercy, a different kind of music biopic, which chronicles the struggles of Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, across two periods of his life…

Director: Bill Pohlad

Screenplay: Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner

Based on: The life of Brian Wilson

Synopsis: *Spoilers* California, 1960s. A young LM1Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is riding high with his brothers in their band, The Beach Boys. They have enjoyed a string of hits with their ‘surfin’ pop’ sound and the band has become internationally famous.

However, following a panic attack on a plane, Brian tells his brothers he wants to quit touring and focus on writing and producing a different kind of album.

Once in the studio, his true genius comes to the fore as he blends all kinds of sounds to produce a unique (and critically-acclaimed) album, Pet Sounds.

After his brothers return from a tour in Japan, divisions appear within the group, as Brian wants to continue along the same music path, while the rest of the band wants to go back to the sound that made them famous. Brian goes to work on a new album, mixing his brothers’ vocals with his multi-layered, meticulous instrumental.

Finally, unable to cope with a growing cacophony voices in his head, Brian slowly starts to lose grip on reality; a process invigorated by his experimentation with LSD.

California, 1980s. An older Brian Wilson (John Cusack) is struggling to cope with his mental demons. He has relinquished all control of his life to the shady Dr. Eugene Landy, who, along with his goons, keeps Brian drugged up and under constant surveillance.

At a Cadillac dealership, Brian meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a former model turned car saleswoman. She finds herself attracted to his sensitive and childlike demeanour and they begin to date; their relationship moving tentatively forward under Landy’s intense gaze.LM3

Brian talks to her about the abuse he suffered at his father’s hands and how he literally spent several years in bed as an adult, struggling with his psychosis.

After meeting privately with Landy and seeing for herself how he treats Brian, Melinda becomes worried and sets out to free Brian from his ‘prison’.

Landy eventually banishes Melinda from Brian’s life and berates him into producing another album.

Becoming friendly with Landy and Brian’s sympathetic housekeeper, Melinda manages to get hold of a document that proves Landy’s shadowy intent to lay claim to Brian’s wealth. The doctor is served a court order keeping him out of Brian’s life.

A while later, Brian, now on the road to recovery, seeks out Melinda and asks her out on another date; this time, just the two of them.

A caption on screen tells us that they later married, and remain together today.

*Spoilers* It’s been well noted elsewhere that Love & Mercy is not your typical cookie-cutter music biopic. We’ve all seen these over the years – a young and talented musician overcomes childhood adversity to hit the big time, only to get dragged down by some kind of addiction, before he sobers up and stages a successful comeback, usually aided by a strong and believing woman.

As you might guess from the synopsis, Love & Mercy is not that; even though all the same elements are in place – the abusive childhood, the early fame, the drug-induced downfall and the resurrection at the hands of a strong woman.

However, while all the ingredients are there, the filmmakers offer up a very different cinematic feast. For a start, Brian Wilson is already a star when we meet him and the actual process of his downfall is not shown. Instead we have two distinct periods of his life, which are blended seamlessly together, flipping backwards and forwards in time to show us two very different Brian Wilsons.

It was a clever stroke to cast two different actors, who aren’t exactly interchangeable from physical point-of-view. While it might have been more plausible to whip out the prosthetics and age Dano by 20 years for the 1980s sections, that’s missing the point. In real life, Wilson adopted a different persona later in life and this is reflected by the performances. There’s a fitting disconnect here that helps us understand this complicated and troubled character.

It’s personal evolution – literally leaving behind the person you were and becoming someone new.

In truth, the separation may actually be a little too distinct, with Dano fitting rather more snugly into Wilson’s skin. He looks suitably out of place among the California surfers in the wonderful opening sequence and plausibly pulls off the crazed genius act. We can feel his torment and literally see his mental wheels falling off; something made all the more poignant when we flip to the 1980s and get a fuller understanding of the inner black hole that 1960s’ Brian is teetering on the precipice of.

Cusack is no less touching as 1980s’ Brian, even though there are times it’s hard to relate this character to Dano’s in any way. Where Cusack especially shines is by not letting Brian tip over into a maudlin and pitiful character. We need to see what Melinda sees and why she went to such great lengths to save him – for the most part we do.

Elsewhere, Banks is wonderful as the lively and devoted Melinda, desperate to save Brian from Landy’s grasp. This is a case of the right person coming along at the right time and their relationship feels natural and organic throughout. Paul Giamatti is suitably sinister as the oleaginous Landy, pushing things just shy of over-the-top villainy.

The film is wonderfully evocative of both time periods and the music (as is should be) sounds great (if a little scant, given Wilson and the Boys’ back catalogue).

To sum up, this is a bold music biopic that’s not afraid to eschew the showy set pieces and genre formula to bring us something deeper and more resonant. There are places where the naval-gazing does drag a little and there’s a blended sequence towards the end that does lay things on a bit thick, but overall, Love & Mercy is quite a remarkable achievement and a credit to all those involved.

And, as the end captions and closing credits reveal, the film does adhere to at least one tried and trusted Hollywood convention – the happy ending.

Additional observations
The main thing that comes to mind with this film is what it doesn’t show, rather than what it does.

  • We don’t get the band’s rise to fame and we don’t get the gory details of Brian’s downfall. Instead we get more studio time with 1960s’ Brian and more opportunity to see the aftermath of his drug addiction.
  • We don’t get the full brunt of the abusive childhood, or the later firing of the band’s manager (also the Wilson brothers’ father), which prompts so much residual vitriol. Instead, we get snatches of backstory that help us understand Brian’s state of mind.
  • We don’t get the introduction of Landy into Brian’s life, nor do we get much about Melinda’s life prior to her meeting Brian. Again, things are fed to us as and when we need to know them.

But rather than lessening the drama, conflict and emotional resonance, all these ‘omissions’ add to the film’s power; leaving us free to follow Brian (or should that be Brians) on the journey into and out of his (their) own personal Hell(s).

The Lesson? As a screenwriter, you might find it easy to get inside your protagonist’s head. However, the trick is to be able to show their state of mind. Love & Mercy does this by:

  • Having the grounded and sympathetic Melinda drive much of the narrative in the 1980s’ section – we might not relate directly to Brian’s state of mind, but we can certainly relate to Melinda’s desire to help<./li>
  • Blurring the line between genius and madness – much of the 1960s’ section revolves around Brian orchestrating Pet Sounds, blowing experienced session musician and A&R men away with his creativity in the process.
  • Linking the inner and outer life – this is made easier by Brian’s musicality and the overall theme of ‘sound’.
  • Having a actual antagonist – rather than having Brian being his own worst enemy, Landy provides us with a human ‘villain’ who Brian has come to rely upon and Melinda needs to get him away from.

So while film is, of course, a visual medium, Love & Mercy proves that you can tell a story that’s largely driven by internal forces.

Just be sure to show us (your audience) what’s going on your protagonist’s head…and give us a reason to care.

Next time around, we tie-in with our feature article on Martin Scorsese with analysis of that film-lover’s favourite, Goodfellas.

Issue 7 of RSL is out on 3 August.