If someone ever sent music down from above, Brian Wilson would be the channel through which heaven communicates. I know that John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, which may have been true in a literary sense. However, I think The Beach Boys’ were onto something far more transcendent when it came down to the songs and how they came about. There is a great sense of unexplainable, translucent wonder to the way Wilson writes his compositions. His music feels less like a carefully developed process, and more like a struck of lightning from a clear blue sky. How he does it is a puzzle that seems unsolvable. Where it comes from no one really knows; all that madness, the genius, and the inspiration. Here comes a film and takes a rather commendable crack at it, trying to shed some light on the turbulent life and love of the icon.
If there is one thing “Love & Mercy” certainly is not, it’s a conventional biopic. Not just because it downright refuses to follow the traditional beats and blueprint structure of the genre, but more so because it chooses to capture the essence of its subject instead of attempting to cover as much factual ground as possible. Not to say that it doesn’t depict his life accurately, because it does. In fact, Wilson himself has even claimed it to be “very factual”, which it is. Just not in the way you might expect. It’s a very daring and nakedly honest portrait of the artist, often as stylistically psychedelic as the LSD trips that Brian embark on to stimulate and flourish his creative mind.
Everything about this movie is so utterly fascinating and mesmerising, from the grainy and authentic 16 mm retro-cinematography, to the detailed and multi-layered screenplay. Paul Dano and John Cusack both play the iconic frontman at different stages of his life, and their performances are so subliminally convincing, they almost scream academy award recognition. Each of them show two sides of the same coin, with Dano guiding us through everything between the brilliance and the decadence, while Cusack takes us through the aftermath of a successful but fatal career peak. The intercutting between time and space is very unorthodox and non-linear, and had it not been for Bill Pohlad’s bold vision and firm slight of hand, the whole thing could easily have fallen apart. It works unexpectedly well here, and the idea of not telling the story chronologically really adds gravitas and emotional weight to each individual moment.
By only giving us fractions of key events, the movie signals that it wants to be experienced as a full-fletched artistic statement, not fed to us with a silver spoon of explanatory exposition. It allows itself to dive beneath the skin of its characters, without feeling forced to deliver all the superficial plot points. It’s all the small things that count the most here, such as when we get to see the recreations of Wilson’s meticulously advanced studio recording methods, or when his father sells the rights to The Beach Boys’ music to A&M Records. Everyone uses Brian to make money. Everybody wants something from him, even if they have to justify their means by calling him crazy. Because at the bottom of it all, this is a motion picture about an extraordinary human being who lives inside his own mind. He sees things others don’t. He feels emotions he can’t explain. He hears perfect harmonies and melodies in the back of his head. No one seems to understand what he is, not even himself. It’s tragic in a way, how the world can be so unkind to the new and different. But it’s also kind of beautiful, because when you think about it, what is not initially accepted is usually what ends up cementing a legacy that will last for centuries. It’s a little thing called art.