Love & Mercy

(Bill Pohland, USA, 2014): If director Bill Poland’s decision to shoot key scenes of Brian Wilson’s most inspired recording moments in EastWest Studios were premised on the hope that the environment might bring some haunted mojo to the production of Love & Mercy, you might want to dust off that Ouija board. For while Poland’s authorized biopic of the legendarily troubled pop genius prodigy is otherwise distracted by certain recurrent boilerplate music-biopic elements, and tends to immerse its two largely remarkable parallel lead performances — Paul Dano as the Pet Sounds visionary Wilson, John Cusack as the compliant, docile older hostage to the dubious Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) — the movie hits some its own genuinely sublime notes when observing Wilson at work struggling to get the sounds in his head on tape.

Dano, who has always been impressive even when customarily consigned to roles calling for checklist strangeness, is here nothing short of amazing: racing around trying to convey the internal sounds to his musicians, at once fastidiously precise and almost shamanistically obscure, and nowhere more comfortable, himself or at home than here, in the only place where those noises might actually make themselves heard. He’s at the mercy of a mission to deliver the sounds as yet unheard anywhere but between his own ears, and observing the process by which he gets them both out and right comprise Love & Mercy’s own moments of sweetest inspiration and dramatic immediacy: pretty much all we need to know about Brian Wilson, who might well be crazy but is certainly operating on a higher frequency than everyone around him, is never more clear than here. For every time we see him elsewhere, Brian not only seems confused, ill-at-ease and vulnerable, he’s the embodiment of the most obvious metaphor a Beach Boy could surely suffer: out of water.

Arriving in the same year as the afflicted pop-star documentaries Amy and Montage of Heck, Poland’s movie reiterates the tenacious mythology of the preternaturally gifted young musical star as almost involuntary transmitter of otherworldly frequencies — they don’t pay the music: it plays them — but if the myth is so tenacious and compelling it’s probably because on a certain level it rings itself with a certain elementary truth. Is it possible to hear what someone like Brian Wilson did — those heavenly harmonies, the blend of joy, yearning, sadness and sweet cacophony — and not be somehow possessed? Can you compose ‘teenage symphonies to God’ and not be crazy?

The problem with such a presupposition, which is hardly exclusive to the realm of movies about overly inspired and sensitive rock stars — it’s written into the artistic genius biopic playbook — is that it tends to flatten as much soil as it tills. The fundamental mystery of ‘sublime’ inspiration generates a vacuum into which certain inescapable rote conventions, such as the lonely vulnerability of a tragic stray animal, irresistible to voracious predators and pretty much doomed to addiction and despair, and the result is that somehow Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Brian Wilson — not to mention Ian Curtis, Roky Erikson, Nina Simone, Daniel Johnston, Sid Barrett and just about any other cult-generating pop visionary, winds up cast in the same movie. Only the songs are different: everything else remains more or less the same.

But as lashed to these foundational conventions as it is in most places outside the studio, Pohland’s movie nevertheless has a clear conviction in its subject, and a pair of complementary but distinctly credible performances in its parallel Brians — Dano the ascendant genius, Cusack the virtually lobotomized casualty to it — that lifts the movie to level of certain, if not grace, at least a reasonable argument for it. But at the root of its limitations is perhaps one of the most persistent contradictions in the history of popular culture’s treatment of its most exceptionally, and maybe even indescribably, brilliant agents of amazement: it can only understand and address the phenomenon of genius, which is to say the sensitivity to something beyond the ordinary and the need to do something never done quite the same way before, in the most ordinary way. In the studio, scrambling to summon those sounds from his head, Brian Wilson found the perfect medium for channeling his internal sonic experience.

This is what the movies about such painfully delicate but transcendent souls like Brian Wilson have so rarely found or even frankly sought: a studio where the genius flourish and find form on its own terms and be perfectly itself. (Lionsgate)