[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/jul/14/genius-who-powered-beach-boys/]
An especially complex life story both deserves and defies the telling -- which is why most biopics don't impart more than stick-figure truth. That and the additional problems that what often attracts filmmakers is the fame of their subjects, and that too many writers and directors lack the talent or will to tell a story that chooses its bits wisely and leaves room for the subject's essential mystery.
What I loved best about "Love and Mercy," the new film about Brian Wilson, the man whose genius powered the Beach Boys, is that it felt true -- deeply, complexly true, whether or not it is factually accurate -- yet also left me convinced that I don't and can't know the whole story of Brian Wilson's life. There is mystery here, as there is in every life (though maybe a little more so). This film delves, and educates, and points you toward the mystery, without pretending to solve it.
From everything I've read since seeing it, the film does get the essential facts right -- though you can stop reading if you'd prefer to be in suspense, as I genuinely was. Wilson rose to success as a very young man, writing music for and performing with the band made up of his two brothers, a cousin, and a family friend. His exceptional abilities now seem particularly evident during the period in the mid-1960s when he stopped touring with the Beach Boys and focused on producing their 11th album, "Pet Sounds," which was an artistic departure into more complex and melancholy territory and is now widely considered to be one of the best albums of its era. Wilson was ahead of his time, however, and, burdened by a troubled family history and by mental illness, he increasingly medicated himself with alcohol and a variety of drugs, including LSD. By the mid-70s he had sunk into a reclusive and dissolute existence that nearly killed him.
He came out of that period largely through the assistance of a psychologist, Eugene Landy, who assumed tyrannical control over Wilson's life and finances and even his career. It was not until the late 1980s – when Wilson met the woman who eventually became his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter -- that she and others eventually helped to free him of Landy's destructive influence.
Fortunately, the filmmakers did not attempt to capture those events in an episodic fashion. Instead, director Bill Pohlad cast two actors to play Wilson at two distinct periods in his dramatic life, and uses those two periods as windows into his larger story.
Paul Dano does his best work yet as the younger Wilson, who heard beautifully inventive musical arrangements in his head which he passionately brought to life in the recording studio. The usual stage focus of most music biopics wouldn't have worked for Wilson, because his genius was most evident in cramped studio spaces --yet the film captures something of the radical originality of the ideas that flowed out of him at age 23 by breaking down the creative process into elements that help you better understand the whole. We watch him directing each musician toward the specific sound that he intends, down to assembling bobby pins inside a piano to elicit a specific timbre and barking with his dog to evoke accompaniment for "Carolyn, No."
The particularity of Wilson's intentions and his enthusiasm for the act of creation come through in Dano's scenes with mostly older studio musicians and at the piano assembling the scaffolding of the wondrous "God Only Knows." It turns out that I knew this music too well to know it at all -- these scenes made me hear it as though for the first time and set me in search of "Pet Sounds" for music I had not given the appreciation it deserves.
Those scenes of early Wilson also depict the incipient signs of the breakdown to follow. Dano captures Wilson's vulnerability, the anguish of interactions with his despotic father, his youthful ambition, the extent and the limits of his ability to communicate his drive to create sounds never heard before, how he exasperated and frightened those close to him. The wistfulness and sorrow underlying even buoyant songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" make a different kind of sense in this context; the film captures just how true it was that Wilson "just wasn't made for these times."
Director Pohlad 's choice to intersperse these scenes of early Wilson with scenes from 20 years later is such a brilliant stroke that it is hard to imagine doing Wilson's story justice otherwise. Rather than attempting to chart Wilson's unraveling, the film plays the two periods as complex countermelodies worthy of Wilson's own compositions, humming with the tension of how the two versions of this man can be the same person. John Cusack as the middle-aged Wilson doesn't resemble Dano--and, in a sense, neither did the middle-aged Wilson resemble his younger self. The film wisely avoids answering the question of how Wilson became the lost soul who was wealthy and famous but was not allowed to make the smallest decisions for himself -- yet it provides illuminating glimmers into a story beyond explanation.
The challenges of depicting the later Wilson equal those of depicting his youthful self. How to portray a lovely woman selling Cadillacs who falls for Wilson in the midst of her confusion and occasional alarm over his circumstances? How to make sense of a grown man so damaged and in bondage to a psychologist who controlled his every move? How to depict the difficulty of extracting Wilson from such inexplicable peril?
The scenes of Wilson's later life match the early-life scenes in richness and subtlety. Cusack paints a believable portrait of a man who is clearly damaged and terrified, yet who possesses a sort of beguiling genuineness. And Elizabeth Banks pulls off a miracle in her portrayal of Ledbetter, who grew to love Wilson under such trying circumstances. Her tenderness and courage make a remarkable kind of sense -- I was genuinely stunned by the authenticity of their interactions. Their scenes together resonate with emotional intelligence; almost everything remains unsaid, unburdened by the usual movie exposition that kills most depictions of genuine love.
Paul Giamatti likewise does chilling work as Landy, which was yet another kind of challenge. Because people as destructive as Landy are so difficult to understand, most films settle for cartoon villains that would never materialize in real life. Yet the elements of Landy's hold over Wilson make real emotional sense here. I was not surprised to read later that both Wilson and his wife have remarked that their real life experiences were much worse than in the film; the film convinces in part by not overplaying its hand.
What emerges resonates beyond Wilson's own story. The two parts of his life depicted here happen to contrast two eras of the California dream -- the relative optimism of the 60s, embodied by boys inventively crooning about waves only one of them had any experience cresting, and a later period when the drive to cash in on the dream seems more tawdry and even dangerous.
Pohlad, who has made his career producing an impressive list of films (including "12 Years a Slave" and "The Tree of Life"), establishes himself as an unusually subtle director. He has elicited a portrait of a soul who, though clearly damaged and burdened by the gifts entrusted to his care, turns out to be remarkably and mysteriously resilient. And this wise and beautiful film sparks love and mercy for an unknowable person, and sends you back to his music for more of the secrets hidden there.