Monday, 6 July 2015

Love & Mercy (2015) - Movie Review

The Beach Boys; the gods of surf rock that are challenged only by Queen as the group with the best ear for vocal harmonies… and beyond the respect I have for them as a group, I’m not really able to listen to some of their bigger hits anymore. Not that they’re in any way bad on their own, far from it; it’s just that their songs have gone the way of so many other classics and are largely mangled and distorted for commercial jingles nowadays. Here’s exhibits A and B for why the Beach Boys have become so tainted for me.

But even still, their place in the annals of pop music history is solidified and I am not about to try and question that; hell, while Pet Sounds may be one in a very long list of classic albums I’ve yet to listen to in their entirety, I still recognise that the production techniques Brian Wilson employed were amazingly unprecedented for the time. But what about the man himself? Well, equipped with only surface knowledge about his life story, I set out for today’s film to find out.

The plot: The film shows Beach Boys member Brian Wilson in the 60’s (Paul Dano) and 80’s (John Cusack) as he deals with regular auditory hallucinations. The past shows Brian as he sets about producing the Beach Boys’ masterwork Pet Sounds, while the future shows him under the domineering thumb of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and in the midst of a drug-induced mental breakdown. When car salesperson Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) meets with the future Brian and falls in love with him, she is determined to help him break free from Landy’s hold over him.

For a film that centres on music such as this, especially the cacophonous sound collages that Brian Wilson made, it should be expected that the sound design be fantastic in this film. Atticus Ross, who has worked with Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor on scoring the last few David Fincher-directed ventures, is the solo music supervisor this time around and his background in industrial metal serves him well here. Through creating walls of noise comprised of ethereal voices and everyday sounds like the tinkling of silverware, he adapts Wilson’s style into a method of translating Wilson’s hallucinations onto the big screen. These scenes, coupled with great acting from both Dano and Cusack in the main role, make for some genuinely distressing viewing as the sounds in his head build to a deafening crescendo. We also get a nice selection of Beach Boys tracks, which managed to make me leave behind my ad wizard-distorted view of them and got me to enjoy them again, as well as a weird 8 Mile-aping moment where we hear an unfinished version of Wouldn’t It Be Nice early on then hear the completed version later.

For as good as Dano and Cusack are in this movie, their casting is suspect to say the least. Dano is just the right pick for young Brian, as he not only gets the look down but is able to portray that kind of aural alchemy that probably went into Pet Sounds with relish. He can look like he’s absolutely in love with his music one moment and then spaced-out and tortured the next. Cusack, however, looks about right as an older Paul Dano but he does not look like Brian Wilson. Like, at all. He exists in this weird limbo state where his casting works, but only within the film’s universe and not to the story that it’s based on. Along with the actors playing Brian, we also get Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy. In a showcasing of range to rival Redmayne going from Stephen Hawking to Baron Harkonnen-lite, he went from the classic good guy scientist in San Andreas to being the manipulative and sadistic doctor here. His largely quiet menace, along with a great character-building moment when he finally snaps at Melinda, is quite unnerving. The scene where he is forcing Brian to write music, coupled with Cusack’s broken and emaciated visage like he’s going to keel over at any moment, reaches Still Alice levels of soul-crushing for a brief moment.

It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the rest of the cast don’t hold a candle to these three. Elizabeth Banks may have some good chemistry with Cusack, but I’d chalk that up to Cusack’s abilities given his experience in rom-coms than anything else as she largely serves as his sounding board for the majority of the film. Even then, she gets off lucky considering she at least has a discernible character trait which is more than can be said for the other Beach Boys. Other than attributing to some montages of them recording together and Mike Love (Jake Abel) butting heads with Brian over the direction of their music, they mostly act as window dressing throughout the film and don’t have a lot of lines between them. Their inclusion feels like it was done solely for the sake of accuracy, as their absence would have been noticeable and might have raised a few eyebrows. Of course, when they have as little impact on the plot as they do here, the reaction is about the same honestly. I get that this is a biopic on Brian and not the Beach Boys as a whole but, much like lyrics in songs, if you’re going to include them at all they should at least have a point to them.

I went into this film with only surface knowledge about Brian Wilson and his mental ailments, largely thanks to some details mentioned in a video made by frenemy of the blog Todd In The Shadows: I knew that he was a large component of the Beach Boys’ sound, he had a severe breakdown and that his doctor didn’t treat him well in the slightest. That’s about it. However, even with that basic knowledge and my intentionally not looking up anything more, I can still tell that bits and pieces are missing from the story here. Aside from the other Wilson siblings acting mainly as furniture in the majority of their scenes, we get just enough family history concerning their abusive father to bolster Brian’s story of mental illness. Other than that, a lot of fairly large events are brushed aside for no adequately explained reason: Wilson’s initial breakdown that made him stop touring is glossed over, and barely reacted to by anyone else after the fact, his eventual separation from Dr. Landy is sped through like the film was running short on time, and the selling-off of the Beach Boys’ catalogue behind their backs is portrayed with so little detail that it manages to bring illogic into an event that actually happened. That shouldn’t be possible, especially in a biopic.

However, even with all the production issues this film has, trust the nitpicky guy to find bigger issue with a seemingly innocuous thing. During the 60’s storyline, the film makes frequent mention of the whole “making music for the art, not the hits” thing with Brian, showing him as this tormented artist that wants to make the music he wants to. I can’t even recall all the times I have seen this cliché acted out on film, to the point where I legitimately have no cares to give about the idea anymore. Look, I get it: Musicians get screwed over with alarming regularity, even today, and some make their craft for all the wrong reasons. I also get that even the greatest of notions can become ungodly dull through repetition, which is very much the case here. Whenever the characters question Pet Sounds and how “it doesn’t have any hits on it”, my investment in Brian’s well being saps away ever so slightly, especially when the notion of art in music is delivered with such 60’s ‘free-spirited’ hipster-wank as it is here.

All in all, this film is a lot like Brian himself: Very uneven in places and scattershot in its intentions, but there’s no questioning the artistry behind it. The majority of the cast coast through the movie, the plot is not only mishandled due to the parallel storytelling but also because of the details it leaves out and the heavy-handedness in trying to portray Brian’s musical talents in contrast to his commercial expectations is pretty annoying. However, Dano, Cusack and Giamatti all give great performances here, the score does wonders at helping portraying Brian’s hallucinations in addition to the acting on screen and the depiction of Brian’s love for his craft shines through even the plot’s rough patches. It’s an extremely inconsistent watch that I can only really recommend to die-hard Beach Boys fans or pop music nerds. I may not love it, but I grant it mercy for what it does right.

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