Bold Brian Wilson Biopic ‘Love & Mercy’ Takes Two Actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, to Play One Troubled Genius

Toronto 2014: Writer-director Bill Pohlad’s film may overreach at times — but if you’re not overreaching in a movie about the Beach Boys co-founder, you’re not doing it right

Last Updated: September 11, 2014 @ 7:32 AM

Bill Pohlad‘s “Love & Mercy” might be the boldest music-related film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which is saying a lot when you consider some of the other offerings at TIFF 2014.

There’s Damien Chazelle’s Sundance winner “Whiplash,” whose climax is a drum solo with no dialogue or words — just an extended performance to Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”

And “Roger Waters: The Wall,” a nearly two-and-a-half hour documentary about former Pink Floyd leader Waters’ lavish 1980 concept album, or Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden,” which uses druggy, seemingly aimless rhythms to tell a story about love, disco and garage morphing into electronic dance music, with a little Daft Punk.

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Other ambitious musical offerings are Richard LaGravenese‘s “The Last Five Years,” where the man better known for writing “The Fisher King” and “Behind the Candelabra” tackles an Off-Broadway musical in which the man and woman whose relationship provides the film’s subject only have one song together.

Plus a new director’s cut of Neil Young’s “Human Highway,” a 1982 film so surreal and confounding that it was a commercial and critical disaster upon its initial release.

In that company, the boldness bar is set pretty high. But Pohlad, best known as the producer of such films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life” and “12 Years a Slave,” has turned his first feature as a director in 24 years into a fragmented, nervy and wholly unconventional biography of the Beach Boys’ fragile, tormented mastermind, Brian Wilson.

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He has help in this endeavor from writer-director Oren Moverman. When he appeared in TheWrap’s Toronto video studio, Pohlad said he was fascinated by Wilson’s story and obsessed by the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds,” but he didn’t care for the original Brian Wilson script he received. So he turned to Moverman, who also scripted Todd Haynes’ wildly experimental and impressionistic portrait of Bob Dylan, 2007’s “I’m Not There.”

That film, divisive and brilliant, used six different actors to play different personas of Dylan. “Love & Mercy” is more straightforward but uses two, Paul Dano and John Cusack, to play Wilson at different stages of his life (plus a younger actor to play him briefly as a child).

The film jumps back and forth in time, moving abruptly from a bedroom in 1986 to a studio in 1965 and back again, mixing an imperious Wilson at the height of his creative powers with a broken-down Wilson who never leaves the house unless he’s surrounded by caretakers.

Its two main focuses are the mid-1960s, when the band became superstars but Wilson suffered a drug-fueled breakdown while recording “Smile,” which he envisioned as the Beach Boys answer to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; and the mid-to-late 1980s, when he began a slow return from mental illness under the heavy-handed watch of controversial psychiatrist Eugene Landy, and when he met Cadillac salesman Melinda Ledbetter, who is now his wife.

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Dano is completely persuasive as the young Wilson, a troubled genius who’d been scarred by his father/manager’s abusive treatment. His Brian is haunted and childlike, terrified in airplanes and uncomfortable onstage, but in command in the recording studio as he follows his inspiration away from lighthearted ditties about surf and sand and into multilayered, moody experiments that confused the rest of the band.

In addition to capturing the anguish and drive in Wilson, Dano absolutely looks the part physically, which makes his sequences the most effective in the film.

Cusack has a tougher job, both because he doesn’t look as much like the later Wilson and because the ’80s sequences go over the same basic territory again and again: Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti) was a monster, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) was a savior.

During my days as a music journalist, I interviewed Wilson several times in this period, including one lengthy and memorable conversation where Wilson took a break mid-interview to play me a couple of new songs on the piano, including a brand new composition called “Love and Mercy.”

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And while Cusack does give a sense of a gentle, timid man who’s been reduced to a kind of wary, wounded and programmed passivity, he never quite seems to disappear into Brian the way Dano does — though part of the problem is no doubt the fact that the script doesn’t give him as much to work with.

Still, the troubles with  “Love & Mercy” come from overreaching, of taking a daring approach to a life that can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to a standard biopic. And they’re troubles that are more than compensated for by the nerve and the sharpness that Pohlad brings to the enterprise.

Let’s face it, if you don’t overreach when you’re making a movie about Brian Wilson, you’re not doing it right. When Wilson went into the studio to make “Smile,” for instance, he wasn’t aiming to play it safe. He was aiming for something new, bold and different, and maybe even foolhardy — to, as he once told me, “to beat the Beatles!”

But when I asked him if “Smile” would have beaten “Sgt. Pepper” if he’d been able to finish it, he was succinct: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ would have kicked our ass.”

So to say that “Love & Mercy” may occasionally aim too high or stretch too far simply means that it’s exactly the movie Brian Wilson deserves.