“Pet Sounds” have always sounded like drug songs pouring out of an opened mind to me, as that has always seemed to explain the decade’s charming, expressive infusions with mixed senses – however, I was hardly aware that in the Beach Boys’ case, the psychedelia was due to the mental conditions of one of the members. The biopic, however, explains Brian Wilson’s story in a delightfully moving, dazzlingly experimental “Love and Mercy”, directed by Bill Pohlad.
It’s 1965 and the Beach Boys are at the peak of their career. America blasts “I Get Around” at every party, “Surfin’ USA” steals the airplay and the young boy band seems to describe every aspect of youth culture the teenagers cling into. But for Brian Wilson, it’s high time to experiment – he wants something fresh and is ready to defend his creativity even against his father. As the time travel speeds up, we face the same artist several years older – and struggling with himself, over-medicated, trying to find the person he once used to be.
It needs to be stated – Brian Wilson’s life is filled with storytelling potential, and the biopic certainly hit all the right strings. Capturing both the mellow image of the sixties gracefully mixed with pop superstar lifestyle and the paths taken by a wandering, sick, yet genius mind, it takes a step to shake the addressee with every single medium available. We start with a script by Oren Moverman, who tried his hand in painting the life of a musician of the psychedelic era once again (he was a scriptwriter for I’m Not There about Bob Dylan). The plot combines two decades, creating parallel worlds, or rather an image of maturing, wrapped into images of slipping from the top, misunderstanding and being left alone with the illness and a greedy, sly therapist. Here is where Melinda (excellent performance of Elizabeth Banks) joins in, trying to save the singer with a little help from the housekeeper Gloria. Paul Dano does a terrific job of wearing the skin of an inspired, slightly “dandy” genius working on the iconic album. He depicts young Brian with confidence – both as a musician, when he plays, sings and seeks for the right outcome, and as a troubled young soul who does not really understand what is happening within himself and looks out for spiritual explanations. It all adds up, creating the representation of refreshingly youthful desire to rebel against the conventions and follow the role models. Similarly, John Cusack grasps the nuances of schizophrenia to portray mature Wilson, describing his odd behaviour and wired ways of thinking connected with inner fears. Another outstanding performance was delivered by Paul Giamatti, who plays the therapist of the musician. His character is even more insane than his patient, and despotic enough to be a real danger to the vulnerable artist he takes care of.
A time machine gives you a return ticket (or shall I say, a travelcard for two hours?) from the Sixties to the Eighties – lovingly documentary-like insight from the band’s story mixing with the psychedelic feel and the realistic image of the struggle that comes with paranoid-schizophrenic personality allows “Love and Mercy” to challenge the biographical aspects of the film without giving up on the artistic experiments that aim at showcasing the protagonist’s subconsciousness. The film indulges in the sixties atmosphere, almost combining all the trippy feelings with the state of restless mind. Blurred lines between the reality and the imaginary world of paranoia are intensified by the montage, shaped by visual metaphors and raw, psychedelic images from the beginning to end. The audience can certainly feel the switch between the eras as the effects swing back and forth accordingly, creating a masterpiece that is easy on the eye, yet simply mind-blowing and forcing to think, compare and keep the track of subtleties. That allows us to see not only the development of Brian’s mental issues, but also takes us through the process of his band maturing musically – the fascination with The Beatles who just have ditched touring to close themselves in the studio and come back with “Rubber Soul”, the creativity flowing, the need to discover, experiment and escape the “boy band” label are strongly tied into the story.
Sound design is also contributing to sad, yet fascinating insight into Wilson’s head: starting with the process of composing and slipping into the outer world becoming unbearable, the sounds – from the ones used during recording as Brian tries to produce them right as he imagined to the voices and noises in his head – are as vital to the film as the classic Beach Boys songs (think “Best of…” albums – it’s as simple as mentioning “Surfin’ USA”, “I Get Around” or “Good Vibrations”). The cacophony sometimes gets horrendously scary and overwhelming, but that probably was the intention – and it’s refreshing to hear pop-to-rock transition clashing with the loudness of the composer’s mind.
The extraordinary game of fighting the schizophrenia hidden behind the creativity and a strong desire to become better than the best, a dollop of classic songs (who doesn’t like that, honestly?!) sprinkled with great acting and topped with the imagery and sounds is not a piece of cake in terms of being simple, but it certainly is food for thought – from the starters of pop background, through the main course of a mental issue to the dessert of the smooth visual side. A quote that could summarise the story itself is Wilson’s bandmate opinion on his new tunes from “Pet Sounds” – “even the happy songs seem to sound sad”. Altogether, it’s an image of the transition crafted with attention to detail, so happily sad that the outcome tackles the bigger and smaller issues daringly and successfully.