Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.
Fans of the Beach Boys will find much to enjoy in Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerne’s biography of lead singer Brian Wilson. Moverman also co-wrote the highly unusual film about Bob Dylan I Am Not There, so we expect that this film will not follow the usual rise from obscurity/poverty to overcoming obstacles before success—and we are not disappointed. Instead of beginning with childhood, the script focuses upon two key happenings and their consequences in Wilson’s life, one in the early Sixties right after The Beach Boys have achieved their great success with their surfer songs and are about to set forth on their tour of Japan, and the other two decades later when Brian visits a Cadillac showroom to buy a new car.
Paul Dano portrays the young singer, and John Cusack is Brian in the second portion, the camera switching back and forth as their stories progress. Brian struggles with two father figures, his biological parent Murry (Bill Camp) and his controlling therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who, as the composer succombs to the strain of creating new music while imbibing drugs, takes over his life.
In the early sequence, covering the years from 1965 to 1968, Brian surprises his brothers and cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) by telling them he is not going on the tour with him, that he wants to stay behind and work on some new songs. He much prefers the task of writing the songs to fronting the band. They are not happy, but given no choice, leave without him.
In the second sequence, during the 1980s, a burnt out looking Brian in a showroom sits inside a new Cadillac with the gorgeous ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Some of his words are puzzling, seemingly disconnected. She wonders when he says of the two men accompanying him that they are body guards. He strongly insists that it must be this car that he buys. Unknown to her he has become smitten with her and wants this particular car because it is the one in which they had their first conversation. Nor does she know who he is until Landy comes up and points out that her client is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. She is a bit embarrassed when she replies that she grew up on their songs.
The scenes in which the young Brian works with the studio musicians to match up the real sounds with those he is hearing in his head is especially fascinating. The group (mostly men in that prefeminist era, but also including a woman or two) is known as The Wrecking Crew . (Just a few weeks ago I saw and reported on the documentary film of the same name, with Brian Wilson making several comments in it.) Wilson works with each artist to achieve the precise sound he wants for the songs that became the album Pet Sounds. He has heard The Beatles’ inventive Rubber Soul, so he is no longer satisfied with the simple teeny bopper songs that brought success to his band.
In one scene Brian is sprawled atop the grand piano in an experiment for the intro of “You Still Believe in Me,” in which he places bobby pins on various strings, changing one around after listening to the pianist hit a key. He has a brass player play a riff over and over. He even brings in his dogs to record their barking—the audience laughed aloud when he asks, “You think we can get a horse in here?” He also shows he is open to collaboration: when the pianist apologizes for not playing a measure as written, Brian tells him not to worry, that what he has just played is better.
Now we understand the cryptic opening scene in which Brian sits at a piano and mutters softly to someone we cannot see, “It should be like a cry, but in a good way.” This is followed by an extreme close up of an ear that at the time seemed to make no sense. We realize that Brian is striving to hear aloud the music that is inside him, a process that is not easy, but one requiring time and patience. Due to one of his father’s many beatings Brian is partially deaf in his right ear. Some speculate that the damage caused him to constantly hear sounds and that his constant experimenting with his music was a way to get the sounds out of head and achieve some measure of peace.
When his brothers and cousin return from Japan, they have neither his patience nor time for Brian’s new music. In their arguing with Brian, Mike Love is the most vociferous, accusing Brian of dictating to the band and asking why they cannot continue as before with their surf music. Brian replies, “We’re not surfers, and real surfers don’t listen to us.” In the studio Mike almost blows his stack waiting around while Brian insists on endless retakes in order to achieve the sound matching the one in his head. Fortunately in an earlier scene one of the older Wrecking Crew members tells Brian during a break that he is different from others he has worked with, but definitely an artist.
All this takes a toll on Brian, with depression and the use of the drugs prescribed by his therapist Landy. There are also recreational drugs such as LSD. Earlier the band had agreed to fire as their manager their father, but Brian still craves Murry’s good opinion of his new music. When he plays part of “God Only Knows” for him, Murray scornfully calls it “a suicide note.” The father predicts the new venture will be a failure, and proudly tells them he is managing a new band. He says that they sound just like the old band did, the unimaginitive man unaware that his son has grown far beyond it.
Brian takes out Melinda several times, but always in company of others, with his body guards close by as well. She soon learns, when Landy in effect “interviews” her, that they are spies as much as protectors. The therapist, informing her that Brian suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, says that he will grant her access to him as long as she follows the rules. This will set the tenacious and loving woman on a course that brings her into conflict with Brian himself, as well as his manipulative therapist. She discovers that Landy has insinuated himself into all of Brian’s financial business as well as his family. Even his brothers have to agree to what is essentially a house imprisonment of the singer. At one point Brian, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, breaks with her when she keeps insisting that Landy is manipulating him rather than protecting him. They do not see each other for a period of time. Eventually it requires the help of the devoted Hispanic housekeeper to successfully challenge Landy’s choke hold on the life of his client.
Love & Mercy, the title taken from Wilson’s 1988 solo album, is a powerful story of tenacious love overcoming great odds. Like most such films, much is left out, in this case the years in between the two events during which Brian became obese as well as addicted to drugs. The film is full enough, however, not needing any further complications to an already complex story. I should mention the bizarre scene in which Brian and entourage are imbibing drugs in a tent set up in his living room, and then he exits and sits barefoot at a piano, beneath which he has brought in sand from the beach!
A highlight is seeing Brian Wilson himself at the end of the film singing the gentle song that gives its name to the film. The lyrics will resonate with people of faith, especially the chorus: “Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight/Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.” * The three verses are set in a movie theater where another violent film is playing; in front of a TV set with its news of hurting people; and in a bar wherein the singer is struck by the patrons’ loneliness. The first line of the chorus is Brian’s prescription, and the second his benediction. As we say in church, “Let the people say, Amen.”
* To see the words and hear Brian sing the song go to the YouTube URL below. This version rises to an anthem-like climax when Brian is joined by an inter-racial boys choir. There is another version over on the right where you can click on and hear the boys’ choir Libera singing the song, and Brian makes some comments.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.