Love and Mercy (2014: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks)

I figured I’d wait until this docudrama came out on a streaming service to see it, despite my general fondness for all things Brian Wilson. I found it hard to imaine that it could be either so brilliantly performed or so illuminating as to justify a need to see it in the short term. I was pretty much right on that front.

Pretty much every piece of purportedly nonfictional media about Brian Wilson’s life has had (if you excuse the reference, which whistles over the head of everyone who’s not obsessed with late-60s Beach Boys works) its Heroes and Villains. Exactly who falls into each category depends who happens to be spinning their agenda with this go-round of the blame wheel. There are enough people in his history who can be read ambiguously that it’s up in the air as to whether in any given story Mike Love is going to be the pragmatist trying fruitlessly to pull Brian out of the clouds or the philistine who is crushing his artistry; whether Eugene Landy is going to be the genius psychoanalyst who untangles Brian’s knot of neuroses or the unethical quack who isolates and bleeds his patients; whether Marilyn Wilson is a long-suffering and completely-out-of-her depth loyal spouse or an enabler for Brian’s worst habits; or whether Murray Wilson is a rage-fueled abusive monster or a rage-fueled abusive monster (nobody still living is actually on Murray’s side, so he always gets to be a villain).

In this particular (fictional but truthy) iteration of the Brian Wilson story, the central conflict is between the virtuous and determined Melinda Ledbetter and the nefarious and shifty Dr. Eugene Landy. One depressing thing about the Brian Wilson narrative is that, no matter how much people coo over Brian’s genius, he’s never a character with much agency in these retellings. Melinda falls for Brian, Landy snarls and rages and holds Brian prisoner, Melinda mobilizes an offscreen Carl Wilson to serve Landy with papers, Brian gets set free, roll credits. There’s not much there there, plotwise (it’s churlish to point out, in a work of fiction, that it’s also completely fabricated, inasmuch as Brian Wilson remained in Eugene Landy’s care for 6 years after meeting Melinda, for most of which the two weren’t in contact).

Intercut with the 1986 plot is a series of flashbacks, mostly the the Pet Sounds/SMiLE era of 1966, although there’s a brief montage of Brian-in-bed shots later to sum up the 70s with trippy Brian-at-different-ages visuals for exta mindscrew. In these scenes, Murray Wilson gets to carry a nice load of the burden of villainy, while Mike Love (a popular punching bag for SMiLE-era histories) is presented somewhat ambiguously.

THe film as a whole doesn’t go much of anywhere interesting. Hagiography for Melinda is a new look for the Brian Wilson bio, but it’s a new look on an old story, and the story itself is presented as a rote recitation of setpieces Brian Wilson fans would have encountered elsewhere. I’m reminded, actually, of how two the few scanty lyrics from “Barnyard” and “I’m in Great Shape” were in the 2004 SMiLE remake. No, they almost certainly weren’t lyrics planned for the final versions of those songs, but they were what the fans had heard and therefore had to be included. Likewise this film replays the greatest hits of the Brian Wilson story, most of them of obvious origin: both a dialogue Brian has with Melinda about his father’s physical abuse and the abortive mission to visit his house are taken near-verbatim from I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times; the SMiLE-era stuff is a montage of pianos in sandboxes, studio musicians in fire hats, and sessions of dogs barking, all skimmed form the most prominent elements of ’66 Brian Wilson lore. It’s not unexpected but its kind of disappointing, that this film had nothing to say, on either a large or a small scale, than had already been said several times before.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Love and Mercy (2014: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks)

  1. dougorleans says:

    Thanks for the review! Small copy-paste error, perhaps: according to Hulu, looks like this was released in 2015, not 2004?

    I don’t know much at all about Brian Wilson, but I’m curious; is there another film you’d recommend over this one?

    • Jake says:

      Thanks for the correction; I’ll fix the title.

      There aren’t a lot of great films about Brian Wilson. Or even a lot of great books. Most of it is that pretty much everyone involved with his life very deeply is a horribly unreliable witness, so everything about him has to be seen through a lens of propaganda of one sort or another. The documentary I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is kinda the best I know of, because it gts pretty broad viewpoints.

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