The Lives of Brian
By some quirk of programming (or counterprogramming), UK cinemas are currently hosting two musical bio-pics pretty much guaranteed to leave the sympathetic viewer leaving the cinema making the same observations (and I should know, for I heard someone doing so this week): 'what an enormous talent... awful how everyone around them exploited them so terribly... of course, all the drugs didn't help...' One of these films is Asif Kapadia's Amy, which is pretty much a straight documentary, while going down the based-on-a-true-story route is Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy, about the life of Brian Wilson.
Younger readers can probably be forgiven for not being entirely sure who Brian Wilson is, I suppose, for all that they've probably grown up listening to his music, along with everyone else under the age of 50. Wilson is most celebrated as the creative force behind the Californian rock group the Beach Boys, overseeing the production of many of their most famous records: I Get Around, California Girls, Surfin' USA, and many more. Alongside the story of ceaseless invention and boundless talent, however, is one of deep psychological problems and personal turmoil, with the effects of a troubled upbringing only exacerbated by a prodigious pharmaceutical intake and exploitation by some fairly unsavoury individuals.
Wow, it does sound like the Amy Winehouse story, doesn't it? Perhaps it's better to say that this is one of those tragedies which endlessly replays itself in new settings and with new characters. At least this particular iteration has (spoiler alert) a happier ending than many.
The film focuses on two periods of Wilson's life, and Pohlad has taken the fairly bold step of casting two different (and, it must be said, quite physically dissimilar) actors as Wilson. The younger Brian of the 1960s is portrayed by Paul Dano. This element of the film opens with Wilson retiring from touring with the rest of the band and going into the studio to work on ideas for the album that would eventually become Pet Sounds (now widely accepted as his magnum opus). His interest in pursuing his own creative ideas leads to tension with the rest of the group, however, and being introduced to LSD does not help his mental state much, either.
The other section of the film picks up the story over twenty years later (dates are not given on-screen, but apparently the later section occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Elizabeth Banks (one of those actors it seems I've been watching in different things for years without it ever actually registering) plays Melinda Leadbetter, a car saleswoman who encounters a troubled and fragile older Brian Wilson (John Cusack). The two hit it off, but she quickly comes to realise that Brian is now firmly in the grip of his psychiatrist/manager, Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who insists on controlling every aspect of his life. Even as she realises the depth of her feelings for him, she is forced to ask herself whether she is motivated by a genuine desire to help, or if she's just another person who wants to take something from him?
Dano and Cusack are billed as Brian-Past and Brian-Future respectively, which sounds odd until you learn that early versions of the script featured a third Brian from the 1970s: the period in which Wilson famously once spent several years without really getting out of bed (apparently Philip Seymour Hoffman was at once point considered for Brian-Present). I'm not entirely surprised this segment was dropped, and what I suppose we must call Wilson's most troubled years remain the dark heart of the film, never really explored, but always lying ahead of his younger self and overshadowing his latterday life.
Pohlad does a good job of making a cohesive film out of a narrative which to some extent thus has a hole in the middle of it, and more than that is made up of two quite different stories. The 1960s stuff with Dano is reasonably standard musical-hero bio-pic material – darker elements of their background are tastefully touched upon (in this case, Wilson's abusive relationship with his father, whose credentials as a hostile figure are established when he opines that the lyrics to God Only Knows sound 'more like a suicide note than a love song'), the creation of a revered classic is dwelt upon in some detail, and there's the slightly clunky device where a supporting character goes out of their way to tell said musical hero just how innovative and brilliant they are. But Dano's performance is customarily good and it did make me want to go and find out more about Wilson and the Beach Boys.
The 80s and 90s material is a rather different kettle of fish. John Cusack is, well, John Cusack, so you know you're not going to see something awful, but I found his performance to be just a little bit mannered: and Dano is so effortlessly convincing as the younger Wilson that it's Cusack you feel inclined to criticise when the two performances don't quite join up to form a seamless whole. He's not even playing the lead role, though, as this is much more the story of Melinda Leadbetter and her relationship with Wilson – the film shies away from using someone with such pronounced mental problems as a viewpoint character. Nevertheless, Banks is very good, and Paul Giamatti is not afraid to be horrible as Gene Landy (again like the Winehouse movie, I bet there were pre-screenings of this film attended by battallions of lawyers scrutinising it for actionable material).
And, above all, there is something genuinely affecting about this story and the redemptive effect that Leadbetter had on Wilson: spoilers again, but the two have been married for twenty years, and while the Brian Wilson who occasionally pops up on tour sometimes seems like a slightly detached and awkward figure, he still seems to be in much better shape than he would have been without Leadbetter's intervention in his life. So this is a story that deserves to be told – celebrated, in fact. Love & Mercy veers between the experimental and the routine too often to be a genuinely great movie, but it's certainly not a bad one.