N.W.A were a legitimately dangerous, exciting and revolutionary force in music. Yet, for all of that, when they were given the Hollywood biopic treatment, Straight Outta Compton ended up being surprisingly vanilla, predictable and rose coloured. Straight Outta Compton might be the box office winner when it comes to 2015 musician biopics, but the one that should be remembered is the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson that made a musician seem genuinely dangerous, exciting and revolutionary, in Love & Mercy.
Split between two specific periods of Wilson’s life, there’s 60s Brian Wilson (Paul Dano). Despite their many hits, he’s decided that the music of the Beach Boys needs to evolve beyond the cheesy surf sound they pioneered. So while the rest of the band tours the world, Brian stays in the studio, meticulously building what will become Pet Sounds. When it is a critical success but commercial bomb, he retreats even further into musical experimentation and psychedelics.
Then there’s 80s Brian Wilson (John Cusack). One day he wanders into a car dealership and is smitten by the saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Through her eyes, we see what his life has been reduced to. Under the ever watchful eye of his therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), Wilson is basically a prisoner. Landy dictates where Brian lives, who Brian can associate with and even when and how much he can eat. When Melinda and Brian meet, Brian hasn’t seen his own brothers or daughters in several years.
Great performances in biopics often come in two categories. There’s the actor who can physically transform into their subject, looking and sounding just like them, but never coming off as a cheap impression. Then there’s the performance that’s more about what’s going on the inside, when an actor somehow captures the essence or soul of the person they’re playing. My favourite thing about Love & Mercy is that we get both.
Dano’s physical resemblance to a young Brian Wilson is uncanny. His mannerisms, speech patterns and little quirks are spot on too. Even his singing is surprisingly on the money. But it never feels like he’s pretending to be Wilson, it feels like he is Wilson. Then there’s Cusack. Physically he looks nothing like Wilson and less like Dano. But there’s something about the way he carries the character that makes you feel like this is exactly the man Dano’s character would tragically become in 20 years.
And of course, there’s the music. Pet Sounds has gone onto become regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, so at the very least, depicting its creation was going to lead to hearing some awesome songs. But director Bill Pohlad gets the depiction of the creative process so right. Is this what it was like to be in the studio with Brian Wilson? I have now idea, but I do know that this movie makes it seem like this is exactly what it could have been like. And that’s where a lot of movies about artists live or die. Somehow, for something like creativity, that is such an internal process, Love & Mercy made me feel like I was watching it in action.