There are few genres that get filmmakers more excited, and audiences more bored, than the music biopic. Oft-trod, easily misbegotten, it’s a form that can even turn sane filmmaking heads into concrete--and movies into VH1-ified examinations of talented people who rise, fall and learn some lessons along the way.
So it’s a refreshing surprise to find “Love & Mercy,” a story about the pop icon
The second story line, circa the late 1980s, finds us with an older Wilson (Cusack), hollowed-out and under the control of Eugene Landy (
Into this mix — at car dealership, of all places — comes Melinda Ledbetter (
“He's manipulating you,” she soon tells him of Landy. “He's protecting me,” Wilson replies. “You’re protecting him,” Ledbetter returns. Against Landy’s wishes, a romance flowers.
Pohlad tells each storyline chronologically but cuts back and forth between them, so that we are essentially watching a successful young Wilson coming undone (and inventing bold new music) at the same time as we are watching an older, fractured Wilson trying to put himself back together.
“If it was just telling young Brian’s story about the music I don’t know that I would have done it,” Pohlad said in an interview Monday at a restaurant at the
Pohlad was inspired to make the movie by two elements, he said: the 1997 box set of “Pet Sounds” that offers illuminating detail about how the music for the seminal album was put together, and his hearing about the car-dealership moment in which Wilson and Ledbetter (the two are now married) met.
Pohlad took a long-extant script called “Heroes and Villains” and set out having Moverman, who has taken on unconventional music stories before in the
In addition to its structural ingenuity, the film is eager to show how the music was actually made. Pohlad often shoots the studio scenes of the young Wilson in documentary style, hiring real musicians so he can show the creative process as it’s rarely seen on screen. Instruments and arrangements come together in Wilson’s bursts of inspiration for albums such as “Pet Sounds” and the unfinished material that would eventually come to be released as “The Smile Sessions.”
The film, which does not have a U.S. distributor but has attracted substantial buyer interest since its premiere at the festival, also offers the prospect of actors at the top of their game. Dano suggests a man whose genius does fierce battle with his other instincts, while even in Wilson’s beaten-down state Cusack avoids a mopey victim and goes for something edgier and funnier, his spaciness undercut with comedy.
“In a way that is Brian,” Cusack said in an interview about the role. “He does have all of that. The broadband is not slow. But I think sometimes with geniuses it's hard to avoid these obsessive tendencies. They can’t get the song out of their heads."
Cusack, who with movies like “High Fidelity” and “Say Anything” is often associated with music on film, said he hopes “Love & Mercy” (the title comes from Wilson's 1988 solo album) underscores just how much the artist provides a soundtrack even to modern life.
“It’s hard to overestimate his influence on music,” Cusack said. “Pet Sounds was a year before 'Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts,' and everything you hear in the Beatles is there. And then you listen more. Especially to The Smile Sessions, and you hear all these other connections. Boom, there’s ELO, there’s another band.”
Both Cusack and Pohlad talked to Wilson but communicated heavily via Ledbetter, who handles many of his interactions. (Wilson was present at the premiere Sunday night and acknowledged the audience, to great cheers, when filmmakers nodded to him from the stage.)
For her part, Banks extolled Ledbetter’s gutsiness (she used a more salt-of-the-earth word) and said that she hadn’t even thought of the film as a musical biopic until it was brought up in an interview. “We’re ‘Get on Up’ but we’re totally different,” she said. “It’s really a story about villains, about good conquering evil.”
Thoughtful and soft-spoken, the Minnesota-based Pohlad, long known to movie writers for his involvement first as a high net-worth financier and then increasingly as a creative producer, directed one little-seen movie in 1990 but has mostly been financing and producing since. He has been involved with some of the more acclaimed movies of recent years, including “The Tree of Life” and “12 Years a Slave,” both of which he produced and helped finance. He said he didn’t set out to learn from the directors of movies like those but simply made the film that he thought seemed most original.