Love and Mercy: Brian Wilson’s tortured life

For those of us who remember the 1960s, the soundtrack of the decade’s early years was filled with tight harmonies from a singing family from California who articulated a generation’s hopes of living with “good vibrations” while surfing in the USA.

The Beach Boys — brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine — created a unique sound from deceptively complex musical approaches. Their music symbolized a country’s innocence that, later in the decade, would become a distant memory. Little did people know, as they hummed these tunes, that behind the sounds the group’s leader, Brian Wilson, battled with family, temptations and creative insecurities. While his music portrayed a carefree life, he lived a contradiction of good intentions and dangerous choices. And, somehow, he managed to survive.

It’s no surprise that Wilson’s life would become a musical bio pic. His dramatic story and rich music are made for the screen. What surprises about Love and Mercy is how effectively director Bill Pohlad maneuvers around the predictable potholes on the bio pic path. He spares us from those familiar sequences of ambition, conflict and setback and avoids the episodic narrative that plagues most biopics. Instead Pohlad focuses on two chapters in Wilson’s life, when a young Brian takes control over creating the landmark Pet Sounds album and when the older Brian acknowledges the toll that success can take when selfish people hang on too long.

What makes Pohlad’s approach work is how he casts the lead roles. By hiring two actors to play Wilson — and giving each the freedom to create unique but complementary portrayals — he challenges our assumptions of how people change as they age. As the younger Brian, Paul Dano captures the ambitions and impatience of youth in an energetic portrayal filled with curiosity and discovery. That is replaced, sadly, by the cynicism of an older Brian that comes to life in John Cusack’s brutal look at the sadness and regret that time can bring. Separately, the actors create complete looks at the layers that make up the driven musician. Together they force us to question how much people actually change over the years and if the characteristics that appeal in youth can challenge in middle age. By trusting two actors with his vision of Wilson, Pohlad creates a complete look that brims with respect while it boils with authenticity.

The director, along with writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner, also take time to let their scenes play. In its early scenes, the film establishes a leisurely pace to show the precision of creating an album in the studio as well as a stylistic visual approach to revealing Brian’s demons. And they naturally include bits and pieces of the Beach Boys music to augment the dramatic arc without abruptly pausing the narrative for musical numbers. Unlike too many other musical biopics, this is not a “best of” collection of hits supplemented by a trimmed narrative. Pohlad creates a full look at a complex man who happens to make music.

Love and Mercy reveals that, when the music may sound simple, something may be happening in the background. Director Bill Pohlad reminds us that, in the right hands, the musical bio pic can pack a real punch.

Film Nutritional Value

Love and Mercy

* Content: High. This sensitive exploration of the trauma behind the tunes helps us appreciate what the Beach Boys went through to create their music.

* Entertainment: High. Thanks to the daring performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack, well framed by director Bill Pohlad, Love and Mercy entertains as it makes us think.

* Message: High. The film reminds us of the damage that people can do when the support that others may need is replaced by the selfishness that some can demonstrate.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about issues of judgment, decisions and consequences is worthwhile

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children can use sharing this film to initiate meaningful conversation about how people can support each other.

(Love and Mercy is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, drug content and language.” The film runs 120 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen: Reel Moments With Musical Biopics

Love and Mercy, the story of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, soars because it avoids the episodic narrative, superficial characters and artificial musical numbers that haunt many biopics about song writers, musicians and performers. Here are some of the best – and worst – of this popular genre. Savor the good ones and avoid the others.

Five of the Best – In Tune

Among the many biopics that circumvent the challenges, these five could write a book on how to film a musical performer’s life.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). The life and music of country singer Loretta Lynn comes to life in the Oscar-winning work of Sissy Spacek who captures Lynn’s complex ambition and sings her own vocals. With Tommy Lee Jones as a most interesting (and usually supportive) husband, the film shows us enough of the dark side of Lynn to appreciate the moments of triumph. And Spacek won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance.

Funny Girl (1968). Also scoring an Academy Award for a musical biopic was newcomer Barbra Streisand, in her first film, in this adaptation of the Broadway hit. As the legendary performer Fanny Brice, Streisand lets us know that she is a powerful performer familiar with exceeding expectations. While we may learn more about Streisand than about Brice, we are entertained every moment.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). As the legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, James Cagney also won an Oscar for a performance that focuses on the dramatic layers without only celebrating the musical triumphs. While he is not a natural singer or dancer, Cagney brings enough swagger to the role to suggest he can command a musical stage. And his dancing, while not always in step, works well for his interpretation of the character.

Bound for Glory (1976). This beautiful look at music in America focuses on folksinger Woody Guthrie who believed in the power of a country’s people to overcome adversity. The film becomes as much a study of the devastation of the Great Depression as a celebration of Guthrie’s unique ability to express how people are tested in songs they can absorb. David Carradine is magical as the writer and singer.

La Vie en Rose (2007). The fabulous Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her brutal portrayal of singer Edith Piaf in the devastating film from French director Olivier Dahan. Cotillard doesn’t hesitate to reveal the weaknesses that may limit Piaf’s ability to find happiness off stage but drive her to live the songs she performs. The actress manages to make a somewhat unlikable character into a woman we want to get to know.

Five of the Worst – Out of Tune

The trouble with the good ones is they make it look too easy to make this fragile type of film work. The disappointments remind us it’s a lot more difficult to make a good musical biopic than it may look.

Sweet Dreams (1985). While the life and music of country star Patsy Cline should work on screen, director Karel Reisz gets it all wrong, focusing too much on the offstage drama without letting us absorb the magic this singer could create. Jessica Lange tries to make Cline a fully realized character but is held back by the musical numbers (where she ineffectively lip syncs to Cline recordings) and the episodic screenplay by Robert Getchell.

Beyond the Sea (2004). As he demonstrates on screen, and in House of Cards on television, Kevin Spacey can make any character seem real. But he couldn’t make singer Bobby Darin very interesting in this biopic of the young singer’s tragic life. Yes, playing Darin may have been Spacey’s lifelong dream, and everyone should get the chance to check off a bucket list item, but few should charge admission.

De-Lovely (2004). Kevin Kline can, as well, do just about anything on stage and screen. But the actor forgot a lot of what makes him so entertaining in this painful look at the music and life of Cole Porter. Movies about composers are always challenging especially when the subject has as many secrets as this man. Kline gets no chance to demonstrate his power as a musical performer while his acting chops are severely constrained.

Walk the Line (2005). Yes, Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar as the supportive wife and, yes, Joaquin Phoenix can do just about anything. But the strength of their performances is not enough to make us believe we are actually watching the life of Johnny Cash. Instead we are welcomed by an approach that is so visually stylized that none of it feels real. And, when Witherspoon begins to perform, we can see the theatrics unfold before us.

The Benny Goodman Story (1955). In the 1950s, Hollywood loved to make movies about band leaders. Unlike the biopics about Glenn Miller and Red Penny – which were insightful and entertaining – this dreary take on the life of another great musician tells us little about Benny Goodman other than he was afraid to say “no” to his mother and fearful of what would happen if he said “yes” to his girlfriend. We learn nothing about how he managed to create such beautiful music.

Chances are, Hollywood will continue its love affair with musical biopics. Let’s hope creators check out the movies that work like Love and Mercy” before they begin.