How ‘Love & Mercy’ Tells Brian Wilson’s Story and Breaks the Music Biopic Mold

Tomorrow, director Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy hits theaters — though it seems a bit reductive to classify it as yet another music legend biopic, as the film takes such great pains to eschew the conventions of those movies and tell Wilson’s story in a unique, unexpected way. I was so taken with the film after seeing it at SXSW that I asked Flavorwire’s music editor/fellow biopic exhaustion victim Jillian Mapes to accompany me for a second viewing, and to share her thoughts on where Love & Mercy falls amid the quietly exciting reinvention of movies about the people who make music.

Jason Bailey: So, last summer, I couldn’t make it to the press screening of the James Brown biopic Get On Up, and you, Jill, were nice enough to go instead. And I got the best email from you afterwards, which I kept, in which you asked of the good reviews it was getting: “Like, does the film press regularly praise bad biopics?” I thought that question was funny on its face — i.e., I don’t think we try to make a habit of praising bad anythings, though YMMV — but it raised the question that I wanted to get into here, which is why so many music biopics are so thuddingly boilerplate. And that’s a question brought on by the Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy, which is (among its many virtues) wonderfully not boilerplate.

And we should probably begin by defining the typical musical biopic: a (in most cases) cradle-to-grave biography of a musician’s life, from early years to discovery to fame to (typically) personal woes and substance abuse to (usually) triumphant comeback and/or premature death, freeze-frame, fade out. They’ve been around forever, from The Glenn Miller Story and The Gene Kroupa Story to Lady Sings the Blues and Coal Miner’s Daughter to The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba to Selena and El Cantante to The Doors and Notorious to Ray and Walk the Line. Those last two movies were the most direct inspirations for the rather merciless music biopic spoof Walk Hard, which took a sledgehammer to the conventions of the subgenre, particularly the clunkily expositional dialogue that seems to come hand-in-hand with the ill-advised notion of smashing an entire life into 120 minutes.

John C. Reilly in "Walk Hard"

Thankfully, it feels like the makers of recent biopics have realized what a fool’s errand that is. Get On Up still tried to fit in too damn much, often clumsily, but at least they attempted some narrative and structural experiments that are fairly radical, comparatively speaking. Jimi: All Is By My Side isn’t a terribly good movie, but it at least focuses on a shorter pre-fame period (perhaps due to rights and clearance issues, but still) and attempts to get into Hendrix’s life in an unexpected way.

My favorite recent-ish music biopic is Todd Haynes’ wonderful I’m Not There, a Bob Dylan biopic that never once mentions Bob Dylan’s name, or has anyone actually playing Bob Dylan. Instead, Haynes casts several actors to play variations on the Dylan mystique — an ingenious dramatization of the chameleonic nature of his career — and works his way through the recurring themes and ideas of Dylan’s work, rather than a dull chronological slog through his life.

The cast of Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There"

Jillian Mapes: Wow, thanks for that tidy yet comprehensive look at the increasingly popular music biopic genre. Will echo: Todd Haynes forever. While not a Bowie biopic per se, Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine is one of the most fascinating music movies ever made, in part because it isn’t actually about anyone. Haynes makes it so fun to wonder what’s reality and what’s fiction in his glam-rock odyssey.

Bailey: Absolutely. And coincidentally enough, Haynes wrote I’m Not There with Oren Moverman, who is credited as co-writer (with Michael A. Lerner) of Love & Mercy. And the strategy here is pretty clever as well. They cast two actors as Beach Boys wizard Brian Wilson: Paul Dano, who plays him in the Pet Sounds/Smile/going-off-the-deep-end/piano-in-the-sandbox period, and John Cusack, who plays him in the late ‘80s, when he was rescued from the thrall of quack doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) by his future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). Seeing the film a second time, I was again struck by what an efficient way this is to tell Wilson’s story — it focuses on (arguably) the two most interesting periods of his life, and dispenses with the filler bullshit (I’m shuddering to think of the inevitable Wilson-family living room “We should be a real band!” scene) that would come between them, and ultimately take screen time and psychological depth from them. Where did you land on this strategy, Jill — and on the movie in general?

Mapes: I agree with you that screenwriters and directors are wising up when it comes to framing legacy musicians’ life stories. No one wants to make a biopic that’s not authoritative in tone — this kind of work hinges on the drama of hero worship. I get it. But you can oftentimes communicate more about artists who’ve had messy lives by highlighting a handful of crucial situations or certain contexts, instead of doing a drive-by of everything. I appreciated Love & Mercy for this very reason. It did the thing that I think is so crucial in works like this: it made me want to go out and learn more on my own.

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in "Love & Mercy"

I’ve thought about Brian Wilson and his music a substantial amount throughout my life, even though I was more of a Beatles kid. I had the bizarre pleasure of interviewing him a few years ago; as his publicist warned me, he answered about 25 questions in the span of 17 minutes. The experience crushes the small part of you that wants to think he’s more aware than the press makes him out to be in other interviews, but alas.

If you grew up with the rock lore of troubled genius Brian Wilson, you’ve probably looked it up from time to time. Instead of couching the ‘troubled’ bit in favor of the ‘genius’ worship, Love & Mercy does the exact opposite, basically giving fans total access to the messiest parts of Wilson’s life. The movie shows the width of Wilson’s struggles with mental illness by showing when they started to become unmanageable, how bad it got, and finally, where and how they became manageable again. Amidst this, you happen to see the peak of Wilson’s musical genius: the making of Pet Sounds. I have to say, those scenes are truly a joy to behold. I’ve always wished someone had filmed the making of that album, but it started as such an experiment for Brian and the Beach Boys, you can see how that would have been unlikely.
Honestly, I am sort of surprised Love & Mercy got made they way it did in the first place. Wilson and wife Melinda were involved to the point that the script was historically accurate, so maybe they see the merit in helping people better understand Brian’s legacy. It’s not a puff piece; this movie actually says something. That’s pretty rare in these kinds of movies, even the “warts-and-all” ones like Walk The Line.

Bailey: Agreed. And frankly, although I agree with you that the young Brian/Pet Sounds stuff might be the most purely enjoyable element of the film (certainly, from a rock-geek perspective, it’s a blast to see the legends of those sessions brought to life), the Brian-and-Melinda angle is what gives the movie its heart. Cusack may not seem fully inhabited by Wilson the way Dano is — seriously, that performance is like a cloning experiment — but the scenes where he opens up to Melinda, at an early dinner date (where we see him only in a mirror, with the focus on Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda as she listens, the audience surrogate) and during a breakdown in a studio, are what give the movie its real emotional life and heft.

Mapes: You’re more about Cusack in this role than I am. He has a certain built-in cynicism that makes Brian Wilson seem like a stretch, though he captured Wilson’s facial and vocal tics with an impressive range of emotional subtlety. I recognize that my unsureness about Cusack, too, stems from the fact that he shares little resemblance with Wilson — which is probably a bigger problem within the music biopic genre. I’m Not There proved that physical resemblance is nowhere near as important as not only mannerisms, but the general aura of a person.

Bailey: Fair enough. I will say that those scenes help the movie ace the two slightly connected tests that I need music biopics (and biopics in general) to pass, but that so few do. 1. Am I getting anything out of this movie I wouldn’t get out of a documentary on this subject? And 2. Would I care about what’s happening in these scenes if they weren’t happening to this famous person? Get On Up, to give a recent example, failed the first test spectacularly; around the time of its release, HBO premiered an electrifying James Brown documentary by Alex Gibney called Mr. Dynamite, which not only gave us the real deal in terms of performance (rather than an admittedly decent imitation), but dug deep into his relationships with his band to create a far more complex and compelling portrait of the artist and the man.

Chadwick Boseman in "Get On Up"

The second premise is a trickier one, because so much of what happens to the subjects of biopics tend to happen to them because they’re famous people. But the relationship at the center of Love & Mercy’s ‘80s half is one we can identify with and be moved by — it’s the feeling of being alone and helpless, yet safe in the arms of someone whose love seems like it could save you. And I think that’s what’s so perfect about the film’s closing images: they convey a hope and freedom that mirrors, and even dramatizes, the best of Brian Wilson’s songs.

Mapes: This genre is too obsessed with holding a mirror to fame instead of telling compelling stories in interesting ways; it’s big part of why Haynes’ films stick out as something special. He translates the experience of being swallowed whole by someone’s music and personality in unexpected ways, instead of merely adapting a comprehensive biography. We need more filmmakers and screenwriters like him to make music biopics that maybe aren’t for an audience that’s unfamiliar with an artist before seeing the movie. Love & Mercy managed to tell Brian Wilson’s story without assuming the audience knows nothing — which, from the perspective of music person (i.e., the audience that is most excited about these films), is really appreciated.
I hope we continue to see music biopics that give themselves specific parameters — be it experimentation with time frame or unconventional casting methods — and strive, most of all, to make a great film instead of merely an accurate dramatization of a famous person’s time on Earth.

Love & Mercy is out tomorrow in limited release.