In the last decade there have been a number of quality biographical films. Always a popular genre with audiences, the biographical genre has always been a bankable contender for Academy Award nominations, for instance Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005). That there has been room for innovation within this formulaic genre in the American mainstream is indicative of the influence of European film. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) bears the obvious influence of Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Karl May (1974). Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra (2013) represents the less avant-garde approach to the genre, though it’s innovations are no less incredible due to the fact that it represents its homosexual subject in a vein that is as explicit as it is humanistic. What Soderbergh and Haynes both employ, thus marking a new clear trend in the genre, is an abandonment of graphically portrayed lapses in time, such as a title card reading something like May 8th, 1914. Until recently this has been a hallmark of the genre, exemplified by Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), the antithesis to the aesthetic proposed by Haynes and Soderbergh.
When Love & Mercy (2015) was announced and Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son, Married Life) was credited as writer, one immediately anticipated the non-linear format of the film. Bill Pohlad’s name likewise signified an expectation for innovation given his previous credits as producer of Steve McQueen’s controversial 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011). These expectations were fulfilled insofar as Love & Mercy works along a non-linear narrative structure. The film jockeys back and forth from the mid-sixties to the late eighties in the life of Brian Wilson. However, as these scenes play out it becomes painfully obvious that there is no syncopation between the sixties continuity and the eighties continuity and that each scene works as a simple, single revelation of Brian Wilson’s tortured psyche. The film had every opportunity to nurture a naturalism in its dialogue and its performers whilst still conforming to its non-linear structure ala Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1981) but went in the more traditional, condescending route instead.
In this way the script of Love & Mercy is not particularly concerned with Brian Wilson the man nor Brian Wilson the public figure. On the contrary, Love & Mercy‘s script restricts itself to the vernacular of ready-made character types familiar to this genre. Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of Doctor Eugene Landy fits the familiar profile popularized by Faye Dunaway in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) without any of the charm of having done it first.
Love & Mercy runs in to trouble again when it sacrifices its chance to be an instructive visual text on Brian Wilson’s recording methods while working on his masterpiece Pet Sounds. Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006) represents the possibilities for finding and exploring its subject in the studio space. For Kijak, Walker’s employment of unusual sounds and techniques becomes a means through which we the audience can experience Walker’s perspective in which everyday objects are simply potential instruments. Pohlad utilizes the scenes of the Brian Wilson character in the studio as just another means to show his audience what a “nut” Wilson was. Pohlad also conforms these sequences to the aesthetic popularized by Daniel Richter’s footage of John Lennon in his Tittenhurst Park studio during the recording of his Imagine album in 1972. Richter’s visual style and unconventional sense of framing can be seen in every biographical film about a major recording artist since the release of the Lennon film.
What carries Love & Mercy through all of this is John Cusack. Unlike Paul Dano who plays Brian Wilson circa 1966, Cusack never projects emotions into a scene, nor does he overplay moments of emotional confrontation. Cusack may not look as much like Brian Wilson as one may hope, but he does ground the character in himself. It’s a case of an actor being a character of the real person as opposed to playing that person. When an actor “plays” the person they are cast as it is often easy to parody, as is the case with Meryl Streep in Iron Lady (2012). The opposite of this is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neil in Reds (1981). In this respect Cusack is able to create some scenes of genuine tenderness between himself and Elizabeth Banks, who is scripted into being more of a plot device than a character.
What is the most disappointing aspect of Love & Mercy is that it failed to live up to its potential. In raw form, all of the elements were there for it to be a film of the caliber of Behind The Candelabra. Yet it seems that the filmmakers were unsure of what they wanted to say and as how to communicate it.