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Blu-ray/DVD Review: Love & Mercy

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With the typical Hollywood biopic playing like an academic and formulaic account of events that pedantically follow their subjects, often starting from childhood, it’s refreshing to find a film that breathes new life into the genre, being so much more than an illustrious character’s tome-sized video-biography.Love & Mercy in fact transcends the genre itself and delivers a refreshing portrait of a musical legend, a compelling take on the eternal dilemma of art versus business but most importantly an authentic, poignant depiction of mental illness and the ultimate healing power of love.

Being born in 1980, my knowledge of the Beach Boys comes solely from their signature tunes inevitably embedded in the history of pop culture and despite enjoying their sunny melodies I’ve never become an aficionado connoisseur of the Californians’ catalogue, let alone of their lives behind the scenes. That’s whyLove & Mercy is already a winner as it tells the little known story of the band’s creative soul, Brian Wilson, in a way that appeals to both hardcore fans and newbies, yet it would work brilliantly even if it were a mere work of fiction.The filmmakers’ winning choices begin with the screenplay since writers Oren Movermanand Michael A. Lerner have focused on two specific phases in Wilson’s life and career: his search for a new musical direction after the band’s commercial peak whilst struggling with the surfacing of his mental illness in the 60s and then his dramatic years estranged from his family in the late 80s, after falling under the manipulative control of his devious psychotherapist, Eugene Landy.

The story constantly intercuts between those two periods in Wilson’s life with Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) playing the artist’s younger version and John Cusack (Being John Malkovich) playing the later one. It’s a wonderful narrative device that keeps the film engaging and structurally interesting as the temporal back and forth is seamlessly interwoven on a thematic level, moving the story forward at a brisk pace and unfolding Wilson’s inner drama in stylish and inventive fashion.

Both actors are superbly cast and do an outstanding job at capturing Wilson’s essence in their respective eras. Dano confirms to be one the best actors of his generation (and a criminally underrated one at that) as he mesmerizingly portrays the musical genius at the height of his artistic inspiration and at the same time his progressive descent into the vicious spiral of psychosis. Cusack on the other hand displays the perfect balance of charm and vulnerability playing the overly medicated Wilson trapped in Dr. Landy’s vicious web of lies.

Director Bill Pohland navigates the intertwining narrative levels of the story with personality, aptly capturing both periods not just visually with elegant camera work and the help of great production and costume design but most importantly, leading his cast masterfully to portray Wilson’s dramatic journey from celebrated pop genius to miserable shadow of his own self, drowned in depression and anxiety, abusing alcohol and drugs, getting farther away from his wife and daughters.

The filmmaker, who has made his career as producer of Oscar nominated films such as Brokeback Mountain, Into The Wild, The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave, proves to have a promising side career as a director although this is actually his second film after the under the radar debacle of his debut Old Explorers (1990). After all, it’s about finding the right material and here Pohland has crafted a powerful film that’s tonally flawless and expertly gets you inside the mind of Wilson, both the artist and the man. It’s rather fascinating to watch Dano play a possessed-like Wilson relentlessly instructing and guiding a group of seasoned conservatory musicians in extreme detail until they get his vision right. And that’s one of Love & Mercy’s coolest aspects, especially for music geeks like yours truly as it gives an unprecedented insight on the creative process of a musical genius.

Pohland defies all biopic’s clichés, using the opening credits of the film to illustrate the Beach Boys’ commercial peak, climbing the charts, performing in front of delirious fans and shooting music videos on the Californian beaches, feeding their aura of surfers pop stars. But Wilson begins to feel oppressed by the lifestyle, and after experiencing a panic attack on a flight, he decides he’s best suited to remain at home and work on new music in the studio whilst the others finish the tour.

As he conceives the famous “God only knows” and plays a rough version of the tune on the piano for his father (Bill Camp), we get an immediate sense of his troubled relationship with the man who’s bitter for having being dumped as the band’s manager and dismisses the new song as a wishy-washy suicide note, igniting Brian’s outrage. When we later hear from the older version of Wilson about growing up with an abusive father, it’s not much of a surprise since it’s become clear how Brian’s inner demons and obsessions have been hugely driven by his attempts at pleasing his old man, resulting in his mental breakdown.

When the rest of the band, formed among others by Wilson’s two brothers and cousin, return home, Brian has to deal with a growing malcontent about their music’s new direction. Whilst Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), his brothers, are overall accommodating, cousin Mike (Jake Abel) keeps antagonizing Brian about his new choices, accusing him of having written an album with no hits and just depressing songs. But Wilson is adamant about having outgrown the summer and sunshine phase and needing to express new things he has inside. Yet with the label’s pressure of getting back on the charts, Brian’s stress and anxiety only mount, resulting in his condition worsening, and him seeking refuge in drugs.

On a parallel narrative line we follow Wilson (Cusack) in the 80s, a shell of his former self, browsing inside a car dealership where he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), an encounter that changes his life again forever. A gorgeous blonde and failed model, Melinda shows him some cars and is immediately hit by Brian’s humour, charm and straightforwardness but also notices that something’s off with him as she reads the melancholia in his eyes. Brian can’t help being entranced not just by Melinda’s beauty, but how he will later confess to her it’s especially her sweetness and tenderness that breach his shield.

What’s promptly and obviously headed towards romance is however spoiled and challenged by the constant suffocating watch of the unscrupulous Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti) and his lackeys who don’t waste time laying out the ground rules Melinda has to follow if she wants to date Brian. The shady man is introduced as Brian’s legal guardian, the one who brought him back to life after Wilson had wound up bed-bound and unable to function. Yet the closer Melinda gets to Brian, the more she realizes Landy is a dangerous megalomaniac who’s overmedicating Brian after misdiagnosing him with paranoid schizophrenia.

Paul Giamatti gifts us once again with a memorable role, playing the slimy, despotic Landy to creepy perfection without ever indulging in what could’ve easily turned into the caricature of a villain if handled by a less skilled performer. Elizabeth Banks is the great surprise in the supporting cast though as I confess to have mostly been left indifferent by her roles so far, but here she’s undoubtedly at a career best, making us believe from the very start that she falls in love with this broken man, seeing how his true self is still in there somewhere and is in desperate need for help.

That’s where the film is thematically brilliant, handling the topic of mental illness with a smart and sensitive approach, trying to free it from the stigma it had back then and often retains nowadays. Brian Wilson’s story is a must-know as his cry for help led him to find love again, and that love was the ultimate key to his salvation. Both Dano and Cusack do incredible work, conveying emotion and authenticity with their mesmerizing portrayal of this iconic artist’s tragic yet hopeful journey whilst director Bill Pohland expertly transports us back in time, making those eras feel alive and kicking but most importantly he excels at capturing the essence of creative genius and the miraculous healing power of love.

The Blu-ray/DVD edition of the film may not be overly crowded with bonus material, yet the extra content available is worth a watch with a few deleted scenes, an interesting behind the scenes of how the film’s vintage settings and iconic imagery were brought to life and of course the audio commentary from the director and one of the writers, Oren Overman, who by the way also wrote 2007’s I’m Not There, another cool, original biopic of a music icon, Bob Dylan, directed by Carol’s Todd Haynes.

Love & Mercy is available in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD platforms from January 4th.

5-out-of-5

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