If cinema biopics have taught us anything, it's that true genius is born out of great suffering. I guess this is why true stories make such great fodder for cinema, and I say "fodder" because this is mostly what these stories are reduced to - digestible, sentimental pap. We're shown the hardship and suffering, but in a manner that isn't too confronting and politely affecting. Needless to say, these kinds of film infuriate the crap out of me. Occasionally though, a miracle can happen, and a truly great film comes long that is none of those things, telling the story of their subject without fear and with frightening honesty. Bill Polhard's 'Love & Mercy' is very much one of those miracles.
The film looks at two important periods in the life of Brian Wilson, one of the most powerful creative forces behind the Beach Boys. We fluidly move between the two time periods: in the 60s, we find a young Brian (Paul Dano) testing the boundaries of the band by constructing their most iconic album 'Pet Sounds' while his delicate personality begins to fall apart, while in the 80s a broken and confused Brian (John Cusack), under the questionable care of psychologist Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), makes an intense connection with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car salesman who might offer Brian a genuine shot at happiness.
Even though this is only his second film as director, Polhard makes one hell of an impression with 'Love & Mercy'. This is a prime example of how powerful and innovative a biographical film can be, managing to tell the tragic story of Brian Wilson with clarity and respect whilst also being tremendously cinematic. Moving between the 60s and 80s with startling ease, the film is a powerhouse piece of filmmaking. With legendary cinematographer Robert Yeoman behind the camera, it was always going to be a visually striking film, but even Yeoman outdoes himself here, shooting the film in both 35mm and 16mm to give it a sense of authenticity, The 60s sequences are de-saturated and alive with grain and pops, while the 80s period has an almost video quality. Not only does it give the time periods clarity, but makes the film a richer visual experience, especially when it has the flawless production design from Keith Cunningham in the frame. 'Love & Mercy' is a visual feast and a technical marvel, and more biopics should learn from its example.
It all starts from the screenplay though, and Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner have crafted an unforgiving piece of work. Where lesser writers would have made the story familiar and palatable, Moverman and Lerner don't hold back in charting the internal destruction of Wilson. In their hands, and with Polhard's superb direction, sequences like the construction of 'Pet Sounds' become, not a dramatisation of the creation of one of the greatest albums of all time, but a quest by a man on the verge of breaking to find redemption and absolution in a creative pursuit. The creation of art is stripped of its romanticism and instead becomes a violent and destructive force, made all the more powerful with the contrast of the shattered Wilson in the 80s. The film also finds a powerful link to hold the two periods together, and that is Wilson's desperate search for his saviour. In the 60s he thinks it will be his music, 'Pet Sounds' and his abandoned opus 'Smile', and in the 80s finds another possibility in Melinda, a positive and vital force against the manipulations and humiliations from Dr Landy. 'Love & Mercy' isn't a Wikipedia article brought to life, it's the cracking open of a man's soul, and this makes it all the more affecting and important. Unlike so many biopics, you walk away feeling like Wilson and those closest to him have been represented with great respect.
All four leads are absolute knock-outs, giving some of their finest work to date.
Where 'Love & Mercy' truly becomes something special is with its performances. All four leads are absolute knock-outs, giving some of their finest work to date. Past Brian is exactly the kind of role Paul Dano needed, allowing him to demonstrate his tremendous attention to detail while pushing him further than ever before physically and emotionally. His commitment to the part is breathtaking. The real surprise though is John Cusack, who is extraordinary as Future Brian. Cusack has not been turned in a performance like this in years, one of remarkable skill and great humility. While Dano shows us a Wilson coming apart at the seams, Cusack is a Wilson inadequately sticked back together, and the cumulative effect of their performances is heartbreaking. Wilson's salvation comes in the stunning performance from Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, who ensures that Melinda is a character separate from Wilson rather than being defined by him. She's a powerful and energetic force, a stark and important contrast to Giamatti's equally impressive turn as the horrifying Dr Landy, a revolting antagonist with as warped a sense of reality as Wilson but with almost no empathy whatsoever.
I cannot recommend 'Love & Mercy' enough. It's a powerhouse of a film, a rare example of a biographical film doing justice to their subject without compromising on its integrity or artistic vision. I have little doubt that this will be a big contender when awards season rolls around, especially for its remarkable performances. It's an emotionally violent film, not just for the violence inherent in the creation of great art but in the violence of intense human relationships and dependency, but journey with Brian Wilson towards his redemption is worth it every step of the way.