Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in ‘Love & Mercy’ (Roadside Attractions)
Though it’s not making much noise at the box office, Steve Jobs has been roundly praised by critics, with many kudos for the untraditional, three-part structure director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin employ in looking at the life of the late Apple CEO. It could be in line for a gaggle of awards, including for lead actor Michael Fassbender, but it might not actually be the year’s best unconventional biopic.
Months before Jobs there was Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic that’s had a slow-burn effect, steadily building up buzz and positive word of mouth since debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014. While Jobs centers all of its action chronologically, in real-time as the tech maverick prepares to give three major presentations, Love & Mercy pivots between two seminal periods in the life of the iconic Beach Boys’ singer-songwriter, with two different actors playing him. We see Wilson as a young man (Paul Dano) in the 1960s crafting the future-classic Pet Sounds album despite clashes with his bandmates, father, and early-onset mental illness. Alternating with those sequences are scenes that finds the middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack), having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, being controlled by his overmedicating, tyrannical doctor-manager Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and falling in love with his saving grace, the car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
“I thought it was so bold and ambitious, this idea of two actors in two time periods, and how it was going to be held together,” says Banks, who delivers one of her best dramatic performances yet as the strong-willed ex-model who would help free Wilson from Landy’s clutches.
Boldness and ambition can also equate to risk and uncertainty in filmmaking, though. “I definitely feel like it was a risk,” says Dano, who added about 30 pounds to his thin frame to play a young Wilson. “But I really feel like spending an intense amount of time in two periods of his life rather than trying to go birth to present day is just so much stronger… I really think you get inside of the person that way.”
It was never a question of whether Wilson’s life merited a movie. Filmmakers have been attempting to tell his story on the big screen for more than two decades. A biopic about him, one even titled Love & Mercy after what was his latest musical release at the time, was first plotted in 1988 starring William Hurt as Wilson and Richard Dreyfus as Landy. A decade later Wilson’s now-wife Melinda attempted to lure Jeff Bridges to play the musician. Chances are those films would’ve been more straightforward through-the-years depictions of his life and career, or “the greatest-hits version,” as Dano calls it.
But director Bill Pohlad wanted “to find a new way into” the Beach Boys story, he says, after he was approached with a different Wilson script that was floating around town called Heroes and Villains. It had a more conventional structure, but Pohlad was sure he didn’t want to make a standard-issue biopic. So he recruited Oscar-nominated scribe Oren Moverman (The Messenger) to start from scratch on the project. “We were trying to think of different ways to make it more intimate,” he explains. “As amazing as Brian’s life has been, it’s been so filled with melodrama and so many different chapters and incidents that you could go on forever trying to recreate all of that stuff. We wanted to focus on a portion — or in this case, two parts of his life — that would somehow paint a portrait of him that was a little more intimate.”
Giamatti, Banks and Cusack in 'Love & Mercy’ (Roadside Attractions)
So Pohlad, an Oscar-nominated producer (12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life) who would ultimately his direct second movie (and first since 1990’s Old Explorers) got to know Brian and Melinda, and was charmed by hearing of the way they met (as a struggling Brian shops for a new Cadillac). He knew that would be an entry point into Wilson’s tale. “At the same time I couldn’t see making a movie without addressing the Pet Sounds era,” he says. (A third section, about Wilson’s reclusive “bed phase” in the '70s, was considered at one point, and Pohlad has said that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been his top choice to play Wilson during that stretch.)
In the end Love & Mercy is divided into rotating chapters, and both provide remarkably poignant arcs that keep viewers tilting back and forth on a seesaw of emotion. The former sheds new light on the making of an American classic (those with minimal Beach Boys will be shocked to find just how layered the music’s production is) and the tortured musical genius of Wilson. The latter makes for one of the year’s most affecting love stories.
On the surface it may seem odd — or be considered a filmmaking risk — to cast two different actors, but Banks eloquently sums why it actually makes so much sense. “It’s a portrait of a man who is fragmented, and how all of us, we’re all different people at different points in our lives,” she says. “We all grow and change.”
Love & Mercy is now on Blu-ray, DVD, and on-demand.
Watch Katie Couric’s recent interview with Elizabeth Banks: