I saw the movie that should get John Cusack a best actor nomination, but it won’t.
“Love & Mercy” is the best movie I’m going to see this year. For those who don’t know about it, the movie is a biopic of Brian Wilson (from the Beach Boys), specifically centering around the making of the “Pet Sounds” record and also around Wilson’s (for want of a better word) years in captivity with a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and a psychopath milking every penny he could out of him. Wilson was kept in near catatonia for quite some time–drugged and made to dance. Of that portion of the movie, the real-life Brian Wilson says, “Whatever the film shows, it was much worse in real life” (Rolling Stone, July 2015). It’s a startling, heart-wrenching, really beautiful, and ultimately even a little uplifting movie.
Immediately, you notice that they knocked the look of the picture out of the park. It took me a minute to realize I wasn’t watching stock footage. Paul Dano (who plays the younger Wilson–“Best Supporting” in my book, though it’s hard to give either guy top-billing) looks the part and then some. He did a great job capturing the mania of the young man that turned into the trapped victim portrayed by John Cusack (of course, playing the older Wilson). The two sides of the man were both perfectly cast. Elizabeth Banks played Melinda Ledbetter (Wilson’s now-wife). I’ve never seen a picture of Ledbetter, but I can’t imagine that they could’ve found anyone more perfect for the part. Banks is incredible any time I see her in anything. I forget how big a fan I am until I see her again. And I would be remiss not to mention Paul Giamatti, who played “Dr.” Eugene Landy. Giamatti is also always flawless in everything he does (most of you will know I’ve been a fan since “American Splendor”) and this was no exception. He makes a great villain.
You don’t really need to know that much about the Beach Boys, by the way. That’s barely the story. It probably helps a LITTLE…but here’s the thing. I’m not a huge Beach Boys fan. I like them, but I’ve never been rabid…partially because when I first became aware of the Beach Boys, it was via Full House. The shitty, Mike Love-run Beach Boys with John Stamos legit playing in the band. The 60-year-old boy-band version of the Beach Boys. Sure, “In My Room” and “God Only Knows” were both great songs…but if all you know of the Beach Boys is the Olsen-Twin approved version, it’s a tough sell… So it took me a while to catch up to them. But what eventually got me on board was hearing the story of Brian Wilson.
In the 90s, we all just thought he was nuts. Landy was a spin-master and kept the public thinking Wilson was a tragic figure whose brain had split over time and therefore we should pity him. The truth was a much darker web of quite literal captivity (Landy did not allow Wilson access to even his own daughters), and once Wilson was freed–surprise–he got a lot better. Music started coming out again…and in 2004, I became familiar with “Brian Wilson Presents Smile.” He’d finished his magnum-opus that should have come out decades earlier. It was weird–even dangerous if you could put yourself in the headspace that it was supposed to be a BEACH BOYS record… And I liked it. It wasn’t saccharine, but did have “Good Vibrations” on it. I got it. You could hear the joy, but you could also hear the pain and mania right behind it. Mike Love is a jackass for not letting this happen at the time…and actually he’s kind of just a jackass in general…
…but wasn’t I saying you didn’t need to be familiar with the music? I think I stand by it. It’s not really about that, even though it kind of is… It’s a love story. It’s a mental health story. It’s a drama. It’s just got a kickass soundtrack as the backdrop. And it’s beautiful. I’ve been open in recent years about my ongoing issues with depression. There’s a scene in there that I don’t think they MEANT to speak to me, but it was a perfect summary… Wilson wants to escape the life he’s in and get better–he knows he’s trapped and he needs to get out. He expresses the same to Ledbetter, who is trying to literally lead him out of the house and into a new, free life, and even as he’s almost out the door, he expresses that he doesn’t know how to leave, turns around and retreats back to Landy’s control.
Teary eyed and hugging myself… Let’s move on…
I’ve remained at least glancingly familiar with Wilson’s post-Smile work. “That Lucky Old Sun” is great. I largely gave the Disney and Gershwin projects he did a pass. But the new record (“No Pier Pressure”) is phenomenal. Wilson remains one of the handful of voices who can write something lyrically devastating, but make you snap your fingers along to it. I don’t know how he does that. Seriously…how in the fuck does he do that?
I’m forgetting things about the movie that should be mentioned. That Cusack was able to rattle off a story about Wilson being abused by his father like he was giving a weather report. That Dano was able to pull off looking stunned to be told “Phil Spector’s got nothing on you, kid” when Dano’s so young that he might’ve had to Google the NAME “Phil Spector” before filming the scene… How incredible and strong Banks’ scene was where Giamatti’s character is banging on her office door, calling her a slut, and telling her to come out because he knows she’s in there…and she just opens the door and stares him down without a word. …And the twitch. Cusack did his studying. He nailed the facial tick that Wilson himself might not even know is there. The first time Cusack did it, I actually flinched. “Oh shit…he did the twitch…”
Easily in the top five biopics I’ve ever seen. Probably in the top five music movies. A very moving experience that won’t get the accolades it deserves from the mainstream. (Sort of the garage band of biopics…)
If you’re a musician–especially a screwed up one (isn’t that all of them?)–you’ll find plenty to dig into in the movie. If you’re NOT a musician, but you know a musician, you should still see it. Because you’ll see it and want to call one of your screwed up musician friends and say, “…is that what it’s like in your head, too?” (Yes.) And if you’re a fan of love stories that actually end in something other than heartbreak, it works on that level too. I read a review comparing it to “A Beautiful Mind.” That’s probably fair. But “A Beautiful Mind” won’t make you want to immediately rush out and buy “Pet Sounds.” So this is better.