The latest from director Bill Pohlad (Old Explorers) is that rare biopic that respects both its subject and its audience. Love & Mercy is the most insightful portrait of an artist and his process I've ever seen on screen. It presents an astonishing amount of information about not only Brian Wilson's complicated, chaotic life but the equally complex workings of his mind, and it trusts the viewer to keep up. It's a privilege to watch.
The structure is strange yet somehow perfect. Screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner fashion a portrait of the 72-year-old musician's life by focusing on just two chapters and roughing in the rest. The formative years of the Beach Boys, for example, are sketched with a montage of grainy TV performances, a flash of concert footage and a scene on a plane in which the young Wilson (Paul Dano) suffers a panic attack. That incident led to his staying behind and experimenting in the studio while the band toured.
The film's first chapter, set in the 1960s, chronicles the recording of Pet Sounds, an album that broke away from the group's surf-rock sound, sold poorly, and is regarded today as a milestone on the order of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pohlad gets on celluloid something few filmmakers have captured before: a credible suggestion of the creative act.
Dano is fantastic as Wilson at the peak of his powers — hearing musical fragments, angelic harmonies and visionary arrangements in his head and then working painstakingly with session players to replicate them on tape. The director receives invaluable aid from Trent Reznor associate Atticus Ross, who crafted stunning sonic collages to simulate the torrent of good vibrations and bad memories flooding the artist's consciousness during this period.
Here's what I mean by respecting the viewer: Mixed into this soundtrack is a snippet of dialogue — "I'm a genius, too!" — that just happens to have been once barked at Wilson by his abusive father (played by Bill Camp). The exchange itself isn't shown in the film. Its creators trust the audience to recognize the words or else surmise their significance.
The second chapter takes place in the '80s. In a Lynchian twist, the middle-age Wilson is portrayed by John Cusack, who looks nothing like the musician yet capably communicates the extent to which he's broken. A virtual prisoner of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an egomaniac appointed to act as his therapist and guardian, the former Beach Boy is overmedicated and under constant surveillance.
One day Wilson buys a car from Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who connects with him instantly and gradually discovers that Landy is taking advantage of his famous patient. No spoiler alert necessary: Ledbetter frees the man she loves from his clutches and pretty much singlehandedly puts Brian Wilson back together. He may be the film's subject, but Ledbetter is its hero. She's also been Mrs. Wilson since 1995.
These chapters offer a powerful before-and-after portrait of one of music's most significant and least understood giants. We're accustomed to seeing stories like this end in tragedy. (Wilson did a lot of heroin during those years, locked in his bedroom.) However, unlike the recent Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck or the upcoming Winehouse documentary, Amy, Love & Mercy has a profoundly happy ending.
Be sure to stay for the credits and see Wilson perform the touching title song written for his 1988 solo album. He came out the other side with his talent intact, so you never know — he might have a few more like that in him. Wouldn't it be nice?