‘Love & Mercy’: Mediocre biopic

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For Digital First Media

Was there ever someone, who better epitomized the notion of a tortured genius than Brian Wilson? “Love & Mercy” attempts to capture the tension between his creativity and his inner demons.

After co-founding The Beach Boys with his two brothers, a cousin, and a friend, Wilson provided falsetto vocals and played guitar for the band. More importantly, during the ‘60s, he composed, arranged, and produced more than two dozen Top 40 hits for the group. Wilson was the creative force behind the Beach Boys’ album, “Pet Sounds.” Musical aficionados hail it one of the greatest albums in the history of rock and roll.

However, Wilson became psychotic and suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. As Wilson’s behavior became progressively more dysfunctional, his contributions to the Beach Boys diminished. He stopped going on tour with the act.

In 1988, Wilson staged a comeback with his debut solo album, “Love and Mercy.” A song of that name served as its opening track. Critics heaped praise on the release.

Clearly, Brian Wilson’s life offers all the elements of a great biopic. Unfortunately, “Love & Mercy” fails to deliver it.

The first problem is with casting. When you make a biopic about a historical figure from a bygone era, you have considerable license in casting. After all, there are no photographs of Louis XIV. Surviving portraits are no doubt idealized representations, rendered by artists eager to curry the approbation of their royal patron. So, a filmmaker can get away with casting whomever they like.

However, in making a biopic of a contemporary character, filmmakers are constrained. Audiences have a sense of what the subject actually looked like and expect that anyone portraying them should bear a resemblance. When it comes to casting, it is essential that filmmakers bear this in mind.

Once in a while, a filmmaker can get away with ignoring this dictum. In making “Nixon,” Oliver Stone ignored the fact that Anthony Hopkins looked nothing like our 37th President. However, he had the opportunity to make use of the Oscar winning actor and jumped on it.

In “Love and Mercy,” Paul Dano portrays Wilson during the ’60s, while John Cusack plays his counterpart during the ’80s. Neither of them looks anything like Wilson. To make matters worse, Dano and Cusack don’t look even vaguely like one another. Yet here they are, both playing the same character only two decades apart.

The film’s narrative structure exacerbates the casting fiasco. Throughout “Love & Mercy,” it flips back and forth between the ’60s and the ’80s with reckless abandon. This seemingly random editing technique proves extremely disconcerting.

The film portrays how Wilson was plagued by a succession of two unscrupulous tyrants.

In the early stage of Wilson’s career, his father, Murry (Bill Camp), insisted on serving as the Beach Boys’ business manager, co-producer, and publisher. He did succeed at negotiating a lucrative contract for the band with Capitol Records. However, he was an abusive taskmaster.  Over the objections of Brian and the other members of the group, Murry sold Sea of Tunes, the Beach Boys’ publishing company. Wilson insisted that his father had forged his signature.  Eventually, the Beach Boys fired Murry, much to the latter’s chagrin.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Love & Mercy" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGQ

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Love & Mercy” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGQ

After his mental breakdown, Brian came under the control of Gene Landry (Paul Giamatti), a psychologist of dubious ethics. The Svengali-like figure treated a number of celebrity clients, including Alice Cooper, Rod Steiger, Richard Harris, and Gig Young. With Wilson, Landry implemented a regimen of putting Wilson under his around the clock, 24 hour supervision. Landry used such unconventional therapeutic techniques as having Wilson play in a sandbox.  Landry exploited his patient’s vulnerable state to become his business manager as well as receive credits as co-songwriter and producer of Wilson’s compositions.

“Love & Mercy” depicts Wilson stumbling into a Cadillac dealership to purchase a car. There, he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), an attractive, blonde saleswoman. The next thing you know, the two are a couple. Ledbetter withstands the efforts of Dr. Landry to prevent the two from seeing one another.

The film’s portrayal of Wilson’s abusive treatment by his father and psychotherapist seemed unconvincing. Similarly, the budding romance between Ledbetter and Wilson seemed implausible. What attracted Ledbetter to Wilson? Wasn’t she uncomfortable with becoming involved with an overtly psychotic stranger? Why inspired her to endure all the unpleasantry with Dr. Landry? “Love & Mercy” provides no answers to these salient questions.

The film dramatizes some of Wilson’s innovative production techniques. When he recorded albums he hired session musicians to substitute the instrumentals for those of his bandmates. This dramatically enhanced the quality of the albums. However, it evoked the resentment of Wilson’s fellow Beach Boys. Anyone, who is interested in Wilson’s production methodology, would be better served by seeing, “The Wrecking Crew,” a recent documentary by Denny Tedesco.

Despite all the potential that the subject matter offers, “Love & Mercy” is little more than a mediocre biopic.

** PG-13 (for thematic elements, drug content and language)  121 minutes. Roadside Attractions

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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