Love and Mercy
Plot: Past Brian Wilson battles external pressures--dads, band mates, record companies, expectations--while trying to make teenage symphonies to God. Future Brian Wilson, with the help of a car saleswoman, tries to get out from under the thumb of a sketchy psychologist.
If you ask me on the right day, I'm going to tell you that Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever recorded. So though I'm not generally a fan of the biopic, I was already ready to like this going in. It didn't disappoint, and I'm glad that director Bill Pohlad took some chances with this.
First, there's the decision to have two actors play Brian Wilson at different stages of his life. Dano, physically at least, is the more obvious choice, and he nails the performance. Watching him in the studio during the Pet Sounds and later Smile sessions made me think I was watching archival footage of the actual Brian Wilson. He blisses out, grows irritated, listens to the masterpieces in his head, anguishes, and responds to his recorded output with joy so perfectly. He is 1960's Brian Wilson! And then there's John Cusack. I've never been much of a fan, and I was skeptical here, but his 1980's Brian Wilson was really good. There are nuances, enough that I was at least almost able to overlook that he looked exactly like John Cusack. He doesn't have the right forehead for the part, but there were times when Cusack portrayed somebody pulled by people who didn't have his best interests in mind, the numerous voices in his own mind, and his hot little girlfriend in a way that really helps the audience get it. With the two performances and two time periods a little over 20 years apart, it's almost like we're getting two separate movies. At times, it seems a bit disjointed, but Pohlad brings things together well.
I can't believe this is the only movie Pohlad, who's produced a bunch of Oscar-nominated things, has directed.
Next, is the score by Atticus Ross, the guy who works with Trent Reznor a lot. Inspired by Danger Mouse, the guy who mashed up the Beatles' White Album with Jaz-Z, and "Revolution #9," the score is made up of all these hallucinatory sounds of mashed-up Beach Boys' tunes and other sounds. The snippets work as interludes usually, and it works perfectly as a musical manifestation of what's going on in our protagonist's mind. It's really good stuff.
And then there's this weirdo montage at the end that reminded me--of all things--of the ending to 2001. As a way to tie the two stories we've been watching together, it's a strange choice, and I'm not entirely sure I liked it. We switch abruptly from Dano to Cusack to some little kid, Paul Giamatti comes along and looks as if he's wondering whether or not he's supposed to be there, and there's a black monolith for some reason. Ok, there's not a monolith. I made that part up.
I'm also not sure I liked the very final shot of the movie involving Cusack and Elizabeth Banks talking. There's a Lost in Translation thing going on, but I'm not sure it worked as well.
Overall, I liked the chances that Pohlad took though. And speaking of Elizabeth Banks, my biggest gripe is with her. Not her performance or anything because that was fine. No, my gripe has to do with her rear end. She wore tight pants in a few different scenes in this movie, but the camera never got a satisfactory glimpse of her behind.
My favorite parts of the movie, the parts that make up for not getting to see Banks' butt, were the in-studio segments. We get to see The Wrecking Crew at work, including Hal Blaine, drummer extraordinaire who released one of my favorite albums ever--Psychedelic Percussion. Seeing Dano as Wilson bringing the sounds from within his head into the air of the studio was truly magical. I'm not sure if one has to know Pet Sounds intimately in order to fully appreciate everything there, but I'm also not sure how somebody who doesn't still isn't going to be filled with joy during those scenes. Just hearing Dano ask if they can get a horse in the studio should be enough.
There are other performances I wanted to mention. I'm honestly not sure what all the Beach Boys look like, but the fellows who played them looked just like what I imagine they looked like. It was almost like they made CGI versions of the Beach Boys like they did with Ty Cobb in a commercial a long time ago. Bill Camp was really good as Brian's dad, especially in his first scene where he is not enjoying "God Only Knows," persumably because he was a moron. And Paul Giamatti, a guy with a really uneven career, is great as the villain. His finest moment is a freakout over a hamburger right after he's spouted off a bunch of words from his subculture dictionary or whatever. It was a scene Paul Giamatti was born to play right along with the one in that terrible JFK assassination movie where he, as Abraham Zapruder, reacts to seeing Kennedy shot.
Ok, let's go listen to Pet Sounds now. The world would be a more beautiful place if everybody listened to Pet Sounds more often, with or without a horse.