Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story came out in 2007, and eviscerated just about every established cliche and trope of the musical biopic genre. And in the 13 years since, numerous biopics have continued to use all the same cliches that Walk Hard was making fun of.
The greatest offender, of course, was 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that played like a beat-for-beat homage to Walk Hard, while at the same time serving as an obvious score-settling message on behalf of the surviving members of the band who participated in the production. Other biopics in the recent years, like Straight Outta Compton and Rocketman, while still possessing plentiful virtues, had many of the same problems.
But one music biopic in the post-Walk Hard era managed to transcend it, with a creative structure and an innovative approach to the subject and his music. And that movie is Love & Mercy, the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic directed by Bill Pohlad, and starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the 1960s and 1980s versions of Wilson.
Love & Mercy came out in June of 2015, five years ago today, after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival the year before; I saw it at South by Southwest that spring.
Love & Mercy is one of the best movies ever when it comes to depicting mental illness
The film jumps back and forth between Wilson in the late 1960s, during the recording of the Pet Sounds album, “Good Vibrations” and aborted Smile, and in the ’80s, when Wilson met his second wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), and finally broke with the villainous therapist and guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
Throughout, Wilson struggles with mental illness, misdiagnosed for years by Landy, which is manifested by sounds that sound a lot like the Beach Boys’ early music. Love & Mercy is one of the best movies ever when it comes to depicting mental illness.
Sure, the film was produced by Wilson and Melinda, and is invested in a narrative in which it was their love that rescued him. But the elements are put together uncommonly well for this genre – and that music is all pretty damned great.
The recording studio scenes are pure movie magic, as we see Dano’s Wilson putting the Pet Sounds songs together with the legendary session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, who were subject of their own documentary, of that name, a few years ago. There’s also some great stuff about the internal dynamics of The Beach Boys themselves, and the movie isn’t the slightest bit shy about making Mike Love (Jake Abel) look like a huge jerk.
Instead of the “wrong kid died” thing from Walk Hard, or the completely undeveloped relationship between Freddie Mercury and his parents in Bohemian Rhapsody, we get that heartbreaking scene of Brian playing an early version of “God Only Knows” for his legendary jerk of a father, Murry (Bill Camp), only for his dear old dad to tell him that this song, one of the greatest pop songs ever written, sucks.
Bill Pohlad was an unlikely director for such a film. The scion of the wealthy family that owns the Minnesota Twins, Pohlad left his brothers to run the team in Minnesota, and headed for Hollywood, where he produced such movies as Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years a Slave. Pohlad directed a movie in 1990 called Old Explorers, and returned to direct Love & Mercy 25 years later; he hasn’t directed another movie since.
Well-acted, with great music, and without following every last beat of Walk Hard? Love & Mercy has everything you’d want from a rock biopic.