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  Love & Mercy Hang On To Your Ego
Year: 2015
Director: Bill Pohlad
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Graham Rogers, Erin Darke, Joanna Going, Bill Camp, Nick Gehlfuss, Mark Linnett, Johnny Sneed, Gary Griffin, Teresa Cowles, Max Schneider, Diana Maria Riva
Genre: Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 1 vote)
Review: Brian Wilson (John Cusack) walks into a car showroom and asks to see a specific model, and the assistant, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), is happy to do so, ending up sitting beside him in the passenger seat. It is here where the conversation takes an odd turn, as he doesn't wish to turn on the vehicle, but does start telling her about how his brother died; it was a couple of years ago, but he hasn't gotten over it, and she sympathises. Then he asks for a pen and paper, so she gives him a business card to write on, but notices others assembling in front of the car: Brian's bodyguards and his psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who escort him from the building. When Melinda looks at the card, it reads "Lonely Scared Frightened".

Rare is a film that has you thinking "Leave him alone!" to the degree as this biopic of Brian Wilson did. According to this, he was the sort of person who attracted the attention of as many people who wanted to victimise and exploit him as much as those who wished to help him out, and for much of the middle period of his life, the victimisers were winning. Screenwriter Oren Moverman overhauled an earlier script - this had been in development for decades, not including a couple of Beach Boys TV movies - to craft a dual tale of how Wilson deteriorated in the second half of the sixties to the point that he couldn't work anymore, and the era of the eighties where he had fallen under the influence of the puppet master Landy.

Indeed, the eighties solo album Love & Mercy, the song, comes from, has Landy credited as executive producer, and Wilson's first autobiography was dedicated to the shrink, which also credited him with pulling him out of his crippling mental illness in spite of making enemies in Brian's life. In this telling, Landy was a villain, not surprising when this was endorsed by Wilson's wife Melinda, but there was little denying as a doctor, he made a pretty good Svengali, insinuating himself into his patient's days as if he were his own personal project. He remains a controversial figure, as he obviously got Brian out of his years-long stint in bed, but abused the privilege of looking after him, and Giamatti (in spite of a terrible wig) had patently studied interviews with him to get his gregarious, overbearing personality just right, or at least how it came across.

But this was a film stuffed with excellent performances. Cusack was criticised for not resembling Wilson, yet it was all about his interpretation of the role and he nailed the man's childlike, damaged demeanour as it appeared in the era he was portraying him, not bad for an actor who many were writing off as a hasbeen, not bad at all. It's just a quick glimpse, but the scene where we saw him looking absolutely dreadful as Landy berates Wilson in private was truly chilling. Yet most of the plaudits went to the star playing the younger Brian, the excellent Paul Dano, who orchestrates masterpieces like Good Vibrations and the Pet Sounds album, only to run out of fuel when he tried to top those with the Smile album. If any story gives lie to the theory that genius and madness can be mutually beneficial it was this one, as we see Brian fall apart thanks to the drugs he was taking, but also in the pattern that seemed set to repeat itself as the effects of a harsh upbringing take their toll. Bill Camp played the bullying father Murry with a knowing sense of how to push his son's buttons.

So when Brian rebels and doesn't want to make surfing music that surfers don't like anymore, the influence of an abusive parent (who once hit his son so hard he lost most of the hearing in one ear) and the disdain of bandmate Mike Love (Jake Abel) combined with the commercial pressure to deliver hit after hit serve to crush the talent almost completely. Wisely, director Bill Pohlad (the wealthy movie backer responsible for many vital productions) didn't dwell on Wilson's seventies as watching years of meandering in a void might have proved less than engaging, but he had a real coup in Banks who brought out Brian's unwavering belief in the power of love to carry you through both bad times and good in spite of frequent evidence to the contrary in an empathetic, concerned reading. Really this wasn't a film where any actor put a foot wrong, and the perfect recreation of the past, including spine-tingling staging of the music sessions and Atticus Ross weaving Wilson's songs into a woozy, disturbing but often lovely soundtrack, were part of a tapestry of deeply moving and sad, though ultimately hopeful, storytelling, scene after scene of exquisitely judged compassion.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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