SXSW 2015 Review: ‘Love & Mercy’ Smiles on Brian Wilson

Biographies of musicians have become such a staple of Hollywood that they were definitively parodied by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. So it is especially gratifying to see a musician’s biopic tell its story differently. Instead of a showcase of life events, Love & Mercy puts us inside the musical mind of Brian Wilson. Granted, this only works for the right artist. Wilson’s craft is so comprised of incongruous harmonies that it is a distinct artistic point of view for the narrative to mimic.

We follow Wilson’s past self (Paul Dano) as he begs his band to let him stay home and work on the next album while they tour. That album will become Pet Sounds. We follow Wilson’s future self (John Cusack) as he begins dating Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and much of his traumatic past is revealed, as well as a shady relationship with caregiver Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

We still have a long way to go for sensitivity towards mental illness, but the ‘60s was an even less sensitive and informed time when Wilson was manifesting symptoms. He says he hears voices, and the movie doesn’t dispute that, although it’s a matter of public record that Landy’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was overturned. Today we may have more sophisticated interpretations of psychiatric conditions, and we certainly know that people can not only survive with them, but thrive.

Even without diagnosis, it’s the condition of a creative mind. What I’m creating as a journalist only makes a small dent compared to the reach Wilson’s art has, but I can relate to trying to make sense of all the sounds and thoughts I hear. Wilson is so sensitive to sound that noise physically hurts him. I can relate because I’m just annoyed by all the noise in the world, and being forced to hear music in every store or lobby. Montage and sound design convey Wilson’s thought process, but the audience also has the benefit of having heard the finished songs. Wilson was hearing these songs in his head and trying to explain to other artists how it would work.

On a purely historical level, we get to hear “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” forming from single elements. The Pet Sounds sessions are a wonderful piece of filmmaking where we hear pieces that we only recognize once the whole song comes together. We can also appreciate the struggle of an innovator fighting against pressure, often from his own family, to just stick to what sells. It’s clear that Wilson is happy singing sad songs, but you have to hit some next level emotional stability to be able to appreciate that. To some it’s simply depressing, but film tends to reach people who think differently, so I imagine many will connect with the joy in embracing melancholy.

Now, Wilson wasn’t the only member of The Beach Boys, so it may be asking a lot for the rest of the band to accommodate his special requests. When he’s a brother, or at least has been integral to the band’s success, you hope friends and family can be open-minded, if not give in to everything. The film is from Wilson’s point of view though. Business happens without him, like the release of the album, but we only hear hearsay. By Pet Sounds, Wilson’s father (Bill Camp) was already out of the band, so things have already happened that lead to painful moments for Brian. The focus is, rightfully, on the creator and the pressures on him.

Back in the future (which history would place in the ‘70s), a post-Beach Boys Wilson reveals what can happen to such a sensitive mind in the wrong hands. His courtship of Ledbetter is sweet, but Landy’s care becomes suspicious. It’s more like surveillance. It’s easy to pull for Wilson when we already know how much he’s still got in him, but also simply to say that a psychiatric notice is not a death sentence. Maybe you can’t do it alone though, and it takes finding someone who loves you to make you love yourself again.

Intercutting both sides of the story is nothing new, but it matches the harmony that’s in Wilson’s thoughts and music. Sometimes music of the past bleeds into the future scene. It’s not rocket science but the filmmakers know what they’re doing. It may be a tad on the nose when Wilson comes up with “Good Vibrations,” the way biopics always make sure you know when they’re writing the hit songs, but it’s not too much of a wink wink. Complete Beach Boys songs appear to be lip synced from the master recordings, but it looks like Dano is singing the demos for real.

 Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.