Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Love & Mercy (2015)

Love & Mercy takes its title from a song written by Brian Wilson that was released in 1988. When a musical biopic takes its title from a song written by its subject, I expect there to be a pretty conscious choice for that particular choice. The decision, I imagine, is based on two things: it sounds good (and looks good on a poster) and it might bear some thematic resonance to what the film is trying to get at as a whole. So what would the words in the title Love & Mercy have to do with the movie itself? This kind of question of course is simply open for speculation, so here's two ideas that don't so much reflect on the film in its entirety, but demonstrate how this title serves two distinct and crucial parts in the movie:

 In a scene early on, we see Paul Dano as Wilson sitting at a piano playing a rudimentary version of his classic God Only Knows. Director Bill Pohland and cinematographer Bob Yeoman (the great DP behind most of Wes Anderson's movies) use a single-take medium shot as the camera slowly circles around Wilson and his piano, panning between Wilson's face and his hands as they gently press on the keys. Given the visual information we've got, the assumption is that he's working out the song in solitude (we've learned minutes before that the insecure leader of the Beach Boys has decided to skip their Japan tour in order to stay in California and work on a new album-eventually to be Pet Sounds-he's really excited about).

But as the camera continues around to the front of the piano, we see behind it a man sitting on the couch, and when Wilson finishes the song and turns around awaiting judgement, we learn the man is his father, the former manager of his son's band. Now embittered and in a bathrobe drinking a whiskey coke in the middle of the day, the father dismisses the song, calling it "a suicide note." What started as a beautiful scene as we witness an early rendition of not just one of the great Beach Boys songs, but one of the great American songs in general, becomes tragic. It's not just that the father does not recognize the beauty in the melody and the words Wilson has created, but that we get an image of a son trying to impress his dad and experiencing blatant rejection. That he's even making this attempt after what we hear later in the film about the father's abusive treatment of Wilson in his childhood makes the repudiation sting even more. We can read into Wilson's mindset about going to his father's house to play him his new song: The Beach Boys have only played "fun" music, we kicked you out, but now the band is going in a new, more ambitious direction, and I want you to hear first what what I'm working on. 

The idea is that Wilson respects his father because, despite his abusive and rigorous parenting methods, he harnessed the musical skill and integrity that made the Beach Boys famous in the first place. Brian's looking to be loved not just for his commitment to his craft, but for his eagerness to go beyond the conventions that have made his band such a sensation (namely fast, snappy tunes mostly about surfing, girls, and cars). To take what's dull and make it more personal and musically complex. If Brian were a less sympathetic character, he might be doing this to spite his father, to add insult to injury, yet instead the scene is framed around the idea of a son desperately wanting his father to care about his work, and more importantly, to appreciate it. It's an act of a son's love for his father, and a positive reception would in turn be a father's love for his son. 

Alas, Wilson is denied this, and when his father tells him to leave and Brian dejectedly saunters out of the room, we get the first of many times Brian's denied a basic need for love from those closest to him that ultimately is far more important than the acclaim he received from other musicians and critics over his musical ingenuity. 

If the film frames the first part of Brian's story around this denial of love, then the second part-where Brian's story moves from the 60s to the 80s and he's is played by John Cusack-could be framed around his need for mercy being affirmed. This is the part of Brian's story in which his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, one of the few actors who I look forward to seeing yell at the top of his lungs, which he gets to do plenty of here) is micromanaging the musician's life and issuing a detrimental medication regimen. While Landy deserves praise for rescuing Brian from his three year booze, junk food, and drug infused confinement to his bed, his methods now that Brian's on his feet again are clearly detrimental to the musician's well-being. 

Wilson is unhappy and desperate for escape, which is manifested beautifully in the opening scene of the movie when he goes shopping for a Cadillac. As he sits in a brand new Fleetwood with the sales associate, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), we see his bodyguard watching from outside. "Can we just sit in here for a minute?" Brian asks, and they close the doors. In the free open world Brian's access to privacy is positively zero, so this confined space ironically serves as a brief moment of liberation from him. Before he departs, he leaves a note for Melinda that reads lonely, scared, frightened, the brevity of which only heightens the extremity and desperation of his circumstances. I'm not sure if this is how Brian officially met his future wife (Banks is stated, though, that the real Melinda was very generous in disclosing details about her relationship with him), but either way, it's an extremely effective way to establish his need for someone gentle and kind like her and her willingness to provide him help.

Melinda, then, can be seen as a representation of mercy towards Brian, though depending on how you want to define that word, a better one might be compassion. You can turn to many moments in the movie that indicate Melinda's beautiful commitment to understanding and helping Brian, the best of which might be a diner scene between her Wilson's maid. She talks about her love for Brian, but also her sense of feeling selfish. Pohland, who makes some interesting directorial choices throughout despite this being the first thing he's helmed since his debut in 1990, frames Melinda alone waiting for the maid, but we hear in voiceover the first part of their conversation, as if she's really thought through the situation as opposed to just acting out of pure emotion. Banks is really terrific in the film as a whole, and I think one of the reasons is that she so convincingly captures how Melinda has to balance her infatuation with Brian with a more pragmatic understanding of the severity of the man's situation and the immense challenges embedded in his past. 

The voiceover ends with her remarking: "I do not want to be one more person in his life who wants something from him." This to me is the key line of the movie, and if there's any mercy in Love & Mercy, I think it's best expressed in this sentiment. To have mercy on Brian Wilson is to not use him for one's own sake. That's not what his father did, that's not what his brothers did, and that's not what Landy did (though the film doesn't stress it, Landy got all sorts of fame and attention for his work with Wilson before he started taking it such damaging extremes). 

I won't reveal just how the rest of the plot unfolds except to say that Melinda ends up holding true to this sentiment while also managing to stay with Brian, which makes this very sad story almost giddily triumphant. Unlike most musical biopics, this one really leaves you feeling good instead of slightly irked that the man behind those songs you cherish was such an ass. During the end credits we get recent live footage of the real Wilson performing the song Love & Mercy. It's an end-credits technique I normally don't endorse, but here's it's apropos because it affirms that the victory Wilson ultimately achieves in the movie was not something fleeting, but that it really did change his life to this day. He's one of the few great musicians from his era who you can't help but root for and love. 

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