Love & Mercy screened on Day Five of the Sarasota Film Festival. The film is under tight wraps. According to SFF Creative & Program Director Mike Dunaway, the Festival was only permitted one screening of the film rather than the usual two showings. There was a further restriction and that was the film could NOT be screened at the Sarasota Opera House. It had to play at one of the Regal theaters. Likely because the movie theater is a smaller venue.
Finally, Dunaway, rather than just telling the audience to keep their cell phones on ‘silent mode’, he specifically requested that all cell phones be completely turned off. The reasoning was that the owners of the film were specifically concerned about film piracy.
I know this for a fact, because the gentleman I sat next to told me that he had been hired by the film company to ensure that piracy did not occur. Dunaway closed his introduction by saying that there were film security people in the audience. Which I had never heard before at any of the previous film festivals that I have attended.
So what was Love & Mercy about?
In the simplest of descriptions, it is a music-bio film about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. But this is not a straight linear bio.
In fact the film begins in late 1965 when the Beach Boys were preparing for a tour. Brian Wilson (Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson) begged off on joining his fellow Beach Boys on tour, stating that he wanted to stay behind and work on their next album. The record label was demanding the product, and Brian was never comfortable performing on stage.
Mike Love and Brian’s brother Carl Wilson begged him to join them, but in the end, he stayed behind to work on the album. He said he heard things in his head. and they had to come out.
The album that he worked on while his band mates were on tour, playing in Shibuya, Japan on January 7th, 1966, would eventually become Pet Sounds. When Love and the rest of the band returned home, and the band set down to rehearse before recording, Brian found that the band hated the new style songs. Love claimed that this album would never sell as it was so far from their very successful ‘formula’ music.
Murray Wilson, Brian, Dennis and Carl’s father also derided the album. Basically it was very different – not at all in the style of the familiar and popular Beach Boy tunes that sold one gold album after another.
The film then cuts to some years later. Brian Wilson, now under the care of one Dr. Eugene Landy, portrayed by Paul Giamatti. has basically already hit bottom. His often described period of extreme isolation, the recluse period as it was called (he never or rarely left his bedroom, his weight had ballooned up to in excess of 300 pounds, and his wife had divorced him) had passed and he looked better.
But Dr. Landy controlled every aspect of Wilson life. He had power-of-attorney over Wilson’s assets, his diagnosis of Wilson was that Brian was a paranoid schizophrenic, he controlled Wilson’s diet, his medications, and had final say about who could or couldn’t visit Brian.
Basically the film jumps back and forth between Brian Wilson’s life in the mid-sixties as a musical genius and the inspirational composer of many of the Beach Boys best-loved songs to the period beginning in 1983 when Landy basically took control of Brian’s Life.
The film’s structure is basically concerned with these two phases. Brian darkest period is mentioned and even briefly shown as a man in a bed, but the harshest period of Brian’s life is not given what we might call depth. Meaning not much screen time.
I think this structure is what makes the film work. By not showing us much of the rise of the Beach Boys or the fall of Brian Wilson, we are asked to concentrate on two specific periods in this man’s life. And it worked quite well for me. The other twist is to have Brian Wilson played by two actors.
Of course this is only a part of the story. The first we see of Brian Wilson, the older Wilson (played by John Cusack), is when he is out to buy a Cadillac. The saleswoman is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks has the role), Brian seems a bit strange to her, as if she doesn’t know what to make of him. Plus she doesn’t know who he is.
That is until Dr.Landy with his aides (Brian calls them his bodyguards – I call them his handlers – others might say these were Landy’s goons) show up and Landy tells Belinda who Brian is and who he is.
So the film cross cuts between the two eras. Paul Dano as the younger Wilson is excellent. It is difficult to conceive how Wilson can be so much of a musical genius. He hears the differences in the tempos in his head, and instructs the studio musicians. You may not think of The Beach Boys tunes as being complex and the earlier songs really weren’t. But song songs like Good Vibrations, Sloop John B, Heroes and Villains, God Only Knows, and many more are indeed complex tunes.
But the musical genius is a troubled young man. The film doesn’t attempt to explain Brian’s descent into madness in what we might call evidentiary terms. Rather, the films suggests that such things as an abusive father, and the use of ‘recreational drugs’ may have had something to do with it.
What the film does lay out in rather strong terms are the fact that Dr. Landy’s experimental 24 hour control and therapeutics, combining with an incorrect diagnosis, and severe over medication pushed Brian into an even deeper state of depression. Dr. Landy, as portrayed by Giamatti comes off as an evil person – who basically turned a man in dire need of help into a cash cow for Landy’s own benefit.
The other side of that equation is Melinda Ledbetter. Banks makes her far beyond likeable. Banks really does well as the beacon of hope and light for Brian.
Most of the rest of the Beach Boys aren’t given a lot of depth. Mike Love is shown as a somewhat antagonistic character. And Carl and Dennis Wilson don’t have a lot of impact.
Of course, there’s the Beach Boys music. Whether we are watching Brian create at song while sitting alone at a piano, or studio recording sessions, live performances at concert venues, or clips from TV appearances – it’s all there. No one song is ever heard straight from beginning to end until the end, but you get more than enough.
The film was written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, and directed by Bill Pohldad. I think they’ve given us a stirring movie. One that will resonate across the broad spectrum of people who like music, and people who make music. Recommended: don’t miss it when it opens on June 5th.
Here’s the trailer =