Paul Dano gives an astonishingly rich, award worthy performance as the younger, prime-of-creative-best Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy, a major film which easily takes a seat not only amongst the very best music biopics, but amongst those rare films that are able to dramatize the creative process. Essentially, the film boils down to the recording sessions for Wilson’s (with his Beach Boys) seminal Pet Sounds album, and the many scenes set inside that studio feel as authentic and inspiring as you could hope for.
Dano has been quietly achieving greatness for about a decade now. Completely invisible outside of his work (when was the last time you saw him in a gossip column, on a red carpet, or misbehaving on Twitter?), he has held his own with Daniel Day Lewis and Toni Colette, among others, and picks and chooses his roles carefully – so much so that they seem to pick him. Lord knows no-one casts him because he sells cinema tickets, so there’s something else afoot – he’s the real freakin’ deal. And despite his superb body of solid work, none of his previous roles compare to his Brian Wilson, a performance he has crafted so carefully that the real Brian Wilson, viewed on YouTube, may seem less authentic than Dano’s portrayal.
John Cusack plays Wilson later in life, during the period when he was shockingly imprisoned by a psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who had assumed legal guardianship of him based on a dodgy diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (Wilson certainly had / has serious mental illness, but not necessarily that diagnosed by Landy). Cusack is also excellent – perhaps at career best – but the older Wilson is a side story. The real juice is the portrait of an artist as a young man.
Bill Pohlad, an enormously tasteful producer (12 Years A Slave, The Tree Of Life, Into The Wild) directed one film in 1990, but Love and Mercy is really his announcement of intent, and man, he’s worth backing. The film was was made with limited resources but achieves epic emotional grandeur. Imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon biopic done right – that’s what this film is for Wilson. The fact that it’s done on an independent scale reflects the strange career and life arc of its subject. Wilson is McCartney and Lennon – but with a severe illness, which sidelined him from big budget, mainstream, red carpet acclaim. The casting of Dano – a true artist rather than a “movie star” – becomes ever more prescient.
Love and Mercy deeply investigates the relationship of creativity and mental illness, the obsessive need for artists to please their fathers (and father figures), and, indeed, what it means to be a creative person. Wilson’s father, Murry (excellently portrayed by Bill Camp) is reflected and refracted by his carer / imprisoner Dr. Landy, who employs the most basic methods of fatherly foolishness – tough love, a slap then a kiss – in an extremely deliberate methodology of control. Landy was a scam artist, an emotional bully who got his comeuppance, and is played to the hilt by Paul Giamatti, an actor who constantly goes to the edge of taste, and somehow never falls off into tastelessness. He and Dano deserve each other – they are both supremely brave artists.
Laboured with a supporting role – connecting tissue, really – Elizabeth Banks rules. As Melinda Ledbetter, who met and fell in love with Wilson while he was under Landy’s control, she is never less than fully believable. Banks’ extreme beauty almost works against her (hello Charlize Theron, who has shaved her eyebrows, her head and her limbs to adjust our perceptions) but here, as an ex-model come Cadillac dealer, she’s found her role. Her quiet dignity, and growing strength, is extremely well modulated. Late in the film, she has a silent moment with Giamatti that is breath-taking. She won’t win awards for this, but she’ll win respect.
The last time I was so moved by a music biopic, or by a film about the art of creation, was Ray, but Ray feels very conventional against Love and Mercy, and that feels appropriate. Wilson is anything other than conventional. His art was – is – that of true tortured genius. Make a film of that! Pohlad has, and it’s fantastic. I can’t get it out of my mind. Love and Mercy joins Mommy and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the great films of the first half of 2015.