I have a confession to make: I’ve never listened to Pet Sounds. At least not as an album; Looking over the track list, I have heard a lot of the songs, and a couple of them would be at the top of my list if somebody asked me to name the best Beach Boys songs. But my relationship with Pet Sounds has mostly consisted of hearing it praised by musicians and people who write about music, thinking “I really should listen to that,” and then not doing it because I have trouble taking the Beach Boys seriously. I enjoy the occasional Beach Boys song, but it’s got such a “throwaway pop” vibe that’s it’s hard to think of them as anything more than a very early boy band. I mainly went to see Love & Mercy because I usually enjoy biopics and because there aren’t a whole lot of bad Cusack movies. Plus, Giamatti.
It’s a good movie. Cusack, Paul Dano, and Elizabeth Banks are all very good and Giamatti does a great job transitioning from obviously kind of a scumbag to the unquestioned villain of the piece. I’m not sure it really counts as a “biopic,” though. When I left the theater, I didn’t really know much more about Brian Wilson than I when I bought the ticket, and there’s really not a lot of “bio” to it.
As you probably know from the trailer, Dano and Cusack play young and old Brian Wilson. The Dano half of the film picks up when Wilson stopped touring with the Beach Boys to focus on writing and producing, completely skipping over the early years and the band’s rise to fame. While this avoids some of the musician biopic cliches, it’s kind of unusual for a biopic to start at the height of the artist’s success without backtracking to fill in how he got there. Instead, the “early years” part of the movie sticks mostly to the recording and release of Pet Sounds, with some early hints at Wilson’s developing drug problems and mental instability.
The Cusack half of the movie is pretty much a combination of love story about Wilson meeting his second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) and his escape from the clutches of Dr. Eugene Landry (Giamatti). Landry is Wilson’s legal custodian and is micromanaging his life, keeping him heavily medicated, and basically trying to take him for everything he’s got. Luckily Melinda (with some help from the maid) manages to find the proof that Wilson’s parents need to challenge Landry in court and by the end of the movie Wilson is mostly functional again.
The main problem is that so much of Wilson’s life just isn’t covered, and a lot of it is the stuff that seems like it would make for a great movie. Namely the part where he was a complete mess wandering around in his bathrobe and offering drugs to his kids and hanging out with Charles Manson. Or how about giving some context for the Cusack half of his life by showing some of Wilson’s early relationship with Landry so we have a better idea of how this guy managed to take over his life?
In Love & Mercy, Wilson’s “missing years” remain missing. Wilson goes from misunderstood genius to victim to survivor, conveniently skipping the part where he was either deeply disturbed or completely out of control (or more likely, a little of both). Leaving that out not only cuts out that “middle” part that my high school English teacher told me stories were supposed to have, it makes the movie feel sanitized, like it was written by Wilson’s publicist or something.
Despite the odd choices about what parts of Wilson’s life to cover, Love & Mercy is a completely enjoyable movie. The scenes with Dano-Wilson putting together the album, with the music going from barely recognizable (or unrecognizable) noise to instantly-recognizable Beach Boys songs will make me listen more closely to the instruments the next time I hear a Beach Boys song; I’ve always thought of their music as being more defined by the vocals. I might even finally get around to listening to Pet Sounds.