→ June 5, 2015Bill Pohland directed one feature film in 1990 called Old Explorers. I can’t find any information about it other than it’s about senior citizens recreating famous expeditions. Since that unseen debut, Pohland has produced films by some of our best current directors—Terrence Malick, Steve McQueen, Doug Liman, Ang Lee, Sean Penn, and the late Robert Altman—and notched an Oscar nom (for Tree of Life), before he got back behind the camera to make the Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy.
Pohland is a prestige producer, and for his first wide-release directoring effort he’s hired a ton of prestigious collaborators. He’s got Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Jesus’ Son) as his screenwriter, Wes Anderson’s director of photography (Robert D. Yeoman), one half of David Fincher’s go-to moody musicians (Atticus Ross) creating the original score, Gus Van Sant’s costume designer (Danny Glicker), and Tomas Alfredson’s film editor (Dino Jonsäter). That veteran polish gives a shiny sheen to Love & Mercy and gives it a cohesive album feel—this isn’t just a greatest hits compilation slapped together. The below the line elements of production nearly elevate the film to a top shelf musician biopic, before its B-side shows that the A-side had all the hits.
Love & Mercy is an intricately textured film—which is fitting as Wilson engineered intricately textured pop songs decades ahead of his time. Pohland and Moverman bifurcate the standard rotured-musician biopic by showing two portraits at once. There’s the 1960s Wilson (Paul Dano) who’s requested to not tour with the rest of the Beach Boys because it gives him too much anxiety, and instead, he focuses on labored musical productions using multiple instruments, animals, and the voices in his head; and the 1980s Wilson (John Cusack) who is over-medicated, incorrectly diagnosed as bipolar schizophrenic, and under the control of the psychotic manager/physician Dr. Landy (Paul Giamtatti).
For most of Love & Mercy, this remixed approach to the standard biopic structure is able to sidestep the usual succession of early brilliance, inflated ego, sex and drugs shattering relationships, solo failings, and finally redemption. And it’s nice to see A and B side attention to Wilson’s career. But what keeps the film from being great is that it becomes increasingly apparent that the 1960s portion is more alive, more interesting, and just more damn fun to watch. The 1980s should be more intrusively horrific in portraying the level of manipulation and control—it feels like it should be its own separate film. And if it were its own film, it’d feel more complete. Instead the 1980s portion merely becomes a damsel (Elizabeth Banks) saving a (beached) boy in distress.
What makes the 1960s section absolutely sing is the combination of Dano’s performance, the sun-kissed photography of carefree California, and the stunning sound mixing (to highlight not only the beautiful musical noises in Wilson’s head, but also the nagging aural hallucinations that Wilson experiences, perhaps beginning when his father beat him to near deafness as a teenager). Watching Dano work with his studio musicians as he layers sound atop of sound—while his brothers and cousins play the more laidback Beach Boys’ tunes in Japan—is captivating.
The 1980s section is by no means bad; its story just wilts while the other one blooms. It starts off promising, as Cusack and Banks have good chemistry, and Giamatti chews every scene he’s in—but by the time the rest of the ’60s Beach Boys return from Japan and give Wilson grief for his non-radio friendly compositions with sad lyrics, both decades start to show that they are following the biopic structure after all—just in a different order.