Music biopics are never the most forgiving of genres. There is so often the risk of spreading your content too thin; sacrificing emotional intensity for the sake of telling the whole story, which is why director Bill Pohlad’s decision to cover vast swathes of the Brian Wilson story is a brave one and thankfully a pretty successful one too.
Now, I know a thing or two about Brian Wilson. In 1997, I had my own particular Beach Boys enlightenment, which in all fairness absolutely blew my musical world apart. It was a discovery that happened to coincide with the reading of Brian Wilson’s autobiography ‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ a warts and all telling of one of the most magical, bizarre and quite often tragic tales in the history of popular music.
It transpires that this book was actually ghost written and very much censored and manipulated by Dr Eugene Landy (more on him later). Brian was later to testify that he’d never even read it.
Rather one-sided and often embellished it may have been, but it does outline Brian’s story and an incredible story it’s been…
‘Love and Mercy’ chronicles the life and times of The Beach Boys’ founder member and universally recognised musical ‘genius’ Brian Wilson. It’s a film told in two concurrently running, interwoven parts; his early Beach Boys days (superbly done by Paul Dano) and the post – Beach Boys, Dr Eugene Landy days, (an older Brian played with a subtle, yet great awareness by John Cusack).
Dr Landy (a fine performance by the ever excellent Paul Giamatti), was a man, who it should be said, managed to drag Brian out of his non-functioning, long-time bed-ridden state, but ultimately came to be an overbearing, controlling and above all dangerous presence in his life, preventing him from making the a full recovery. All said, a weak, frightened and medicated Brian came to be Dr Landy’s meal ticket.
Whether it was the beatings from an unsupportive father, voices in his head, a lukewarm reception to some of his more ambitious, creative ideas or his fast increasing dependency on recreational drugs (most crucially of all Brian’s flirtation with LSD), Brian’s life journey was one that was always going to derail at some point.
Ultimately, it’s a chance encounter with a beautiful used car sales girl, Melinda, that will save Brian and release him from the Big Brother existence he endures under Landy’s instruction, but not without a struggle.
Interestingly, the song ‘Love and Mercy’ is a cut taken from Brian’s eponymous first solo album, written and recorded during this period of the eighties. It has moments of sublime magic and great musical beauty that undoubtedly lies within Brian, yet ultimately it’s stifled behind rigid production and a rather controlled sound; it’s perhaps no wonder considering the entire project was Landy’s brainchild and by all accounts, he was the driving force behind its inception and realisation.
Pohlad should take great credit for this portrayal of Brian’s life and the clever use of, and at times psychedelically-altered, ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ era of The Beach Boys’ impressive back catalogue.
Pohlad should also take credit for not glossing over the tough stuff. No one is left in any doubt about the state of Brian’s mind, past or present, or of the troubles he’s seen, but in the end, Love and Mercy is like a fine Beach Boys record; at times heartbreaking, but always hinting at better, sun-soaked times ahead.
A fitting tribute to one of the all time greats and one that I’d imagine Brian himself is proud to be associated with.
Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight…