Music biopics are feats of imitation: actors challenge themselves to replicate the mannerisms, presence and musical ability of their famous subjects. For Love & Mercy, in which he portrays Beach Boys’ co-founder Brian Wilson, Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, 12 Years A Slave) took a different approach.
“It felt more about capturing his spirit,” explains the actor, who plays Wilson in his twenties when the band were recording their 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. “So I spent a lot of time immersed in the music and the culture of the era instead. I doubt I’ll ever have as much fun researching a movie again.”
Aside from an impressive job capturing the unmistakable, sweet-sorrow tenor of Wilson’s voice – Dano started out in music, and many of the film’s singing scenes were recorded live – the performance is more interpretation than impression. “There was something that didn’t seem interesting about trying to mimic him,” Dano says. “Besides, Brian was a pretty different person in the Sixties to who he became later.”
Capturing who he became later is left to John Cusack, who plays Wilson during his wilderness years in the Eighties. Director Bill Pohlad alternates the action between the younger and older man, tracing Wilson’s musical development and deteriorating health as he suffers from severe auditory hallucinations and manic-depression.
In the Seventies, with The Beach Boys squabbling and in disarray, Wilson suffered a psychological breakdown including a period when he barely left his bed. He then came under the care of corrupt psychotherapist, Dr Eugene Landy, played in terrifying fashion by Paul Giamatti. Landy misdiagnosed and manipulated Wilson, keeping him under 24-hour watch and making himself his executive producer and business manager, until the efforts of Wilson’s then-girlfriend and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) saw Landy’s professional license revoked and a restraining order put in place barring him from contacting Wilson again. It was a struggle that probably saved the singer’s life, and certainly resurrected his career: in 2004, Wilson finally released Smile, the album he had been working on since Pet Sounds.
While the story feels neat in places and some supporting characters are underwritten – particularly the other Beach Boys, who feel no more real than they do in old clips of them goofing off on the beach promoting “Surfin’ USA” – Love & Mercy has two strengths.
First are moments when Dano’s Wilson buzzes around the studio creating his most famous hits, adding layers of sound, asking musicians to experiment and repeat mistakes and, at one point, help him record barking dogs. The scenes are fun and a reminder of the complex vision that went into creating the breezy melodies of “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations” and the rest.
The second is Cusack as the older Wilson, mixing dry humour and a dash of ego with the honesty and vulnerability you’d expect from any portrayal of pop music’s lost boy. It’s one of the more unconventional biopics of recent years, and all the more enjoyable for it.
Love & Mercy is out on 10 July