It’s kind of shocking it’s took so long for a biopic on the life of Brian Wilson to happen even though there had been talk of it since the late ’80s. It had all the hallmarks of great drama, a “tortured genius” almost looses everything due to drugs, booze and mental health but is able to pull through eventually so he can function enough he can tour all over the world to acclaim. The filmmakers had the genius idea to crosscut between Brian Wilson at the height of his creativity during the sessions for Pet Sounds and SMiLE and then Brian during the ’80s when he is under the control of the quack Eugene Landy.
The filmmaker also decided to cast two different actors to represent Brian-Past (Paul Dano) and Brian-Present (John Cusack). Some critics have dismissed Cusack portrayal of him just being John Cusack but that is completely missing the nuance mannerisms which any person who has watched interviews/performances of Wilson in the ’80s will see that he completely nail. Dano looks and sounds the part of Brian so uncannily that he steals the film but Cusack work really shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Robert Yeoman who is best known for his work with Wes Anderson shot most of the ’60s footage on Super 16 (not like Moonrise Kingdom) so it has the right aesthetic look for the period setting. The ’80s scenes have a colder look which is down to Yeoman’s choice against the director Bill Pohlad’s initial wishes. The script was Oren Moverman who wrote the even more unconventional biopic I’m Not There on Bob Dylan; Michael Alan Lerner was his co-writer on Love & Mercy. The sound design perfectly gets the viewer in the mind of Brian and the score by Atticus Ross inspired by ’60s tape montages add extra insight into the mind of Brian.
Few biopics really show the viewer why the subject changed the landscape of music and Love & Mercy is arguably the first since The Buddy Holly Story which gives you an insight into why the musician mattered and isn’t just a dramatic greatest hits run through of the musician’s life. Obviously there is so much more to Brian Wilson’s life and I would have liked a scene where he is freaked out after watching Seconds by John Frankenheimer in 1966 but as biopics go the music is obviously wonderful, the performances by Cusack, Dano and Paul Giamatti as Levy are spot on. It’s done with enough love and cooperation form the subject but also is willing to go to the darker sides of Brian’s life when necessary. It’s authentic enough that any minor historical inaccuracies can be dismissed and to be fair there are very few.
The disc includes a commentary by Bill Pohlad and the writer Oren Moverman. The featurette on the disc focuses on the production and costume design and is sadly only 10 minutes long. It’s rounded off by a series of short deleted scenes including one where Brian meets his rival Phil Spector but you can see why it was left on the cutting room floor.