Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Love & Mercy takes a nicely unique structure in regards to how it opts to tell its story of Brian Wilson, lead singer of The Beach Boys. It captures, in the manner you would expect from a musical biopic of Wilson, the dreamy air of some of the finest pop music ever recorded, but it also never shies away from the mental health issues that he had to deal with in his life.
More often than not with pop biopics, there is an emotional obstacle for the lead character to face, mostly through the prism of substance abuse. Love and Mercy finds that obstacle not in drugs or booze, but in Wilson’s mental health which came at a great emotional cost to him even when he was frequently delivering dreamily era-defining pop songs that felt a long way away from the trauma he had to deal with in his personal life.
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It’s so easy for the genre to take an A-to-B-to-C narrative structure, or to solely focus on one part of a musician’s life. What gives Bill Pohlad’s wonderful film a different vibe and feel from so many other films of this ilk is in how it structures the story across two timelines, with Wilson played by two actors at different ages. This could have just become something of a gimmick, but it ends up making for a quietly powerful piece of cinema. As a result, the film gifts the audience not one but two brilliant actors portraying Wilson. Paul Dano and John Cusack don’t exactly look alike, but you will undoubtedly believe that they are playing the same role. Yes, they really are that good.
At the time of writing, Paul Dano is wowing with his performance as a more Zodiac Killer-influenced version of The Riddler in The Batman, and yet his take on Wilson is a million miles away from a performance that is currently terrifying multiplex audiences. A frequently wonderful actor, Dano has developed a career that has seen him playing soft-hearted characters that can draw in sympathy, or on the other side of the coin somewhat more antagonistic figures set against an unforgiving landscape, as seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s superb There Will Be Blood, where he went up against a mightily bombastic Daniel Day-Lewis.
His work in that film is very far away from the nuances and sympathetic air he captures as Brian Wilson here. A Hollywood Beach Boys biopic would seem like something that should have been made long before 2014, and while Love & Mercy features many of the tropes that you would expect from one that’s centred on a creative real-life figure, it does try to shy away from being similar to so many other films that take musicians as their central characters.
A film about Wilson had been languishing in creative hell for years in Hollywood, which doesn’t come as a surprise given just how eager movies, and even television, want to devote considerable storytelling energy to having big name actors play real-life figures in filmed concoctions detailing the creative journies that led to some of the most famous songs in the world. Jeff Bridges and William Hurt were both in consideration for the role of Wilson in separate productions, while two made for TV movies about the band and Wilson had also made their way to US television, both of which faced much criticism from fans of the band, critics, and Wilson himself.
Love & Mercy manages to capture Wilson’s life in a manner that crosses from past to present, as his mental health and life ebbs and flows, down the highs of the initial success of some of their greatest hits, to the lows of his treatment at the hands of his father Dennis (Bill Camp), and in his later years his doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The real-life character of Landy is played as an antagonistic figure more prone to taking advantage of Wilson for his own ends. Debate rages as to how much of this film vilified Landy too much or not enough; Landy’s family thought the film presented an unfair representation, while on the other side of the equation Wilson’s bandmates claimed the treatment Wilson endured in real life at Landy’s hands was much worse than what’s portrayed here.
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It’s the scenes of Wilson later in life that sees John Cusack play the role, and it’s here that Love & Mercy‘s unique approach to the casting works wonders. While it doesn’t take the same type of massive risks in casting different actors in the role of its central musician character in the way that Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There does – where six performers played Dylan, including Cate Blanchett – the casting of Cusack and Dano works brilliantly, and not for one moment do you believe that you’re watching two different actors in the role. They feel one and the same, but from differing periods of time beset by the same issues but defined and made wonderful by the same borderline magical talent for crafting music.
Like the best examples of the musical biopic genre, the film has a way of finding much to say and explore away from the songs and the music, but it helps wonderfully when you have something as brilliant as ‘Good Vibrations’ to use to glorious effect.