‘Love and Mercy’ unevenly charts the personal struggles of the Beach Boys’ musical genius

July 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 10, 2015

Love and Mercy is the uneven new biopic about Brian Wilson, the brilliant but troubled musician who helped propel the Beach Boys to the heights of stardom in the 1960s.

The story unfolds on two tracks, not unlike Woman in Gold, another recent movie based on real events. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson, played by Paul Dano, wrangles with his occasionally baffled brothers, cousin and other bandmates about the direction of the band, which has already hit it big. He also fights with his manipulative father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). Murry, who is separated from Brian’s mother, openly berates his sons for having fired him as the Beach Boys’ manager, and he denigrates Brian’s musical experimentation. Brian, torn by these stresses, begins dabbling with hallucinogenic drugs and starts losing control of his life.

These scenes are intercut with a separate storyline — it seems to be set in the late 1980s — in which we see Wilson after he’s bottomed out due to mental illness and substance abuse. The main story here involves Wilson’s tentative romance with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Ledbetter is baffled by the extent to which Wilson has surrendered control of his life to a manipulative father figure — in this case, a malevolent psychiatrist named Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The main players are charming in their roles, and even Giamatti, Camp and Jake Abel (as Wilson’s combative cousin and bandmate, Mike Love) exude a certain dark charisma as the villains of the piece. Unfortunately, the two timelines never really tie together, and the 1980s-era story lacks focus.

Wilson is mainly a passive character in the latter-day narrative; the conflict is mainly between Ledbetter and Landy. And the resolution here is distinctly undramatic — it involves one character finding a damning document that is passed to a second character, which in turn is transferred to unseen other individuals, which results in legal action that is depicted only by an on-screen title.

The weakness of the latter-day narrative was to me very reminiscent of Nora Ephron’s 2009 biopic, Julie and Julia, another movie that showed two stories playing out in different time frames. One tracked the adult life story of TV chef Julia Child, a bored American diplomat’s housewife in France who turned her hobby into a groundbreaking culinary career, while the other described the personal growth of Julie Powell, a bored young married call-center worker cum blogger who set out to make every dish in Child’s first cookbook over the course of a year. The narrative featuring the Childs (Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci) is fascinating; the one with Powell (Amy Adams) and her bland husband is boring and trite.

Love and Mercy’s 1980s story isn’t quite as insipid as the Powells’ in Julie and Julia, but it definitely lacks the vitality that the earlier narratives hold in both films. One of the things that animates the 1960s story here is Wilson’s obsessive determination to break new musical ground; the scenes of him working in the studio are among the movie’s most intriguing. It helps matters that 1960s Brian is an active participant (although less so over time) in the wrangling over the band’s future, in sharp contrast to 1980s Brian, who has abdicated most of his autonomy.

I also found myself frustrated by what seemed to be conspicuous omissions in Love and Mercy. Brian tells Melinda that he married Marilyn, his first wife, when she was quite young, but the character is virtually a complete blank; it’s entirely unclear why he was attracted to her, or she to him. I’ve no idea whether Murry Wilson was dead or alive in the 1980s; either way, he was such an important figure in Brian’s life that it probably should have been dealt with in some way. Brian’s mother (whose name I didn’t catch, if it was ever stated) was apparently alive at the time Brian was under Ledbetter’s thumb, and she was presumably an important part of her son’s life, but she never appears in the movie at all.

I understand that the filmmakers had to leave things out. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether director Bill Pohlad, who’s made his name largely as a producer, and his screenwriters left too much out. (Love and Mercy was penned by Oren Moverman, director and co-writer of The Messenger and co-writer of the Bob Dylan–centric I’m Not There, among other films, and Michael Lerner, whose only other produced scripts have been for three rather obscure movies.)

Despite all its failings, Love and Mercy helped me appreciate the music of the Beach Boys, at least to some extent, as music, rather than as the cultural wallpaper that I’ve experienced it as for most of my life. For that, and for its other accomplishments, I found Love and Mercy to be a modest success. I think it’s a movie that many 1960s pop music lovers and enthusiasts for character dramas will enjoy.

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