Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.
These are just a few of the amazing performances we’ve seen in the movie genre known as the biopic, or biographical film. It’s been around since the beginning of motion pictures, focusing primarily on historical figures, presidents, authors, actors and other celebrities. Biopics on popular music figures first emerged in the late ’50s and early ’60s, with Hollywood treatments of such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Hank Williams and the like. But things didn’t really get rolling until the ’70s, when biopics of Billie Holiday (“Lady Sings the Blues,” 1972), Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” 1976) and Buddy Holly (“The Buddy Holly Story,” 1979) were nominated for, or won, Academy Awards for the star or the film.
Beginning in the ’80s, the number of rock star biopics seemed to grow exponentially, with films of widely varying quality and accuracy showing up at the box office or, more typically, as TV movies. There have been some particularly lame or sensationalistic peeks into the lives of Karen Carpenter, Brian Jones, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, and we’re still waiting for definitive portraits of these and other rock icons.
But there have been more than a few worthy biopics that are indeed praiseworthy: “La Bamba” (1987) featured Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens; “Great Balls of Fire” (1989) starred Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis; “Sid and Nancy” (1986) had Gary Oldman as The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious; “The Doors” (1991) offered Kilmer as Morrison; and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993) captured Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner.
In the new millenium, quality biopics of rock heroes have really flourished. Foxx won an Oscar and four other major acting awards for his searing portrayal of the blues/R&B titan Charles in 2004. Spacey turned heads by using his own singing voice in “Beyond the Sea,” the Darin biopic (also in 2004). The amazing Chadwick Boseman, who impressed many with his take on baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42,” did it again with a mesmerizing depiction of soul legend James Brown in “Get On Up” (2014). Perhaps most unusual was “I’m Not There,” a stunning 2007 film exploring the different facets of Bob Dylan’s life, using six different actors to capture the various personas, most notably Cate Blanchett, who garnered an Oscar nomination.
This year, there are three new films about rock stars that have been drawing rave reviews. Two of them are not biopics but actual documentaries that tell tragic stories of lives snuffed out too early: “Montage of Heck,” a harrowing look at the short life of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and “Amy: The Girl Behind the Name,” a difficult analysis of the meteoric life and death of Amy Winehouse.
But the third offers hope and inspiration because it takes a close look at a man who wrestled mightily with his demons and survived: “Love and Mercy,” an innovative film about Brian Wilson, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of rock music.
As a child of the ’60s, I certainly enjoyed the music of The Beach Boys when it came blasting out of the car radio. My older sister bought all the 45s, and as kids growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, we found it pretty irresistible to fantasize about the freewheeling California lifestyle that Wilson’s songs so succinctly described: “If everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A….” Songs like “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “California Girls” and “Surfin’ USA” were every bit as happy and carefree as the first Beatles tunes, and just as expertly crafted.
But I have to admit I was a member of the fickle listening public who abandoned The Beach Boys when their music started changing in 1967 or so. Sure, they still had a decent song now and then — “Heroes and Villains” (1967), “Do It Again” (1968), “Sail on Sailor” (1973) — but the bloom was off the rose, and their music seemed forever locked in the more innocent pre-psychedelic era, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
Unknown to most people (including me, at the time) was the sad, dangerous path Wilson’s life took at that time, when he suffered panic attacks, deep insecurities and mental instabilities that robbed him of the innate, prodigious musical gifts God gave him. He is 73 now, a true survivor in almost every sense of the word, and he still writes and performs, but he has been through so much pain and so many damaged relationships that it can’t help but affect the quality of his work.
All this is examined in a profoundly gentle and moving way in “Love and Mercy,” which deftly interweaves the two most pivotal periods in his life: the 1962-1966 glory years, and the 1982-1990 period when he was under the fanatical control of radical therapist Eugene Landy. Although this almost bipolar structure is off-putting at first, it eventually dawns on the viewer that Wilson’s story lends itself perfectly to this unconventional storytelling format. Director Bill Pohlad deserves a ton of credit for the final result.
Paul Dano is simply extraordinary as Wilson the young musical genius, brimming over with enthusiasm, ideas and knowledge about studio production and song arranging. As the BBC critic put it: “Dano is fascinating to watch as the young songwriter dashing frantically around the studio, orchestrating a dozen different sounds into auditory unity that only he understands. He seems to transform into Wilson’s very being. The pale, cute moon face, the smile with a hint of grimace, the disarming spaciness — this isn’t just acting, it’s channeling of the highest order.”
It was invigorating to watch the scenes in the studio when Wilson successfully captured the sounds he’d been hearing in his head, especially during sessions for the monumental “Pet Sounds” album and the #1 “Good Vibrations” single. His willingness to experiment and allow musicians to add their own thoughts and ideas sometimes resulted in significant improvements, such as the time when legendary bass player Carol Kane misread a notation on the sheet music. Wilson winked at her and said, “You know what? If you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s not a mistake anymore.”
Drummer Hal Blaine recalled being incredulous that Wilson had written all the charts — bass, guitar, keyboards, horns, all of it — from his head prior to each session. In the film, he tells Wilson, “We’re all conservatory-schooled guys, we know how to read and write charts, but you’re just this kid, and it all comes spilling out of you. You have a rare gift, Brian.”
At the same time, Dano is equally adept at showing us Wilson’s increasingly precarious mental state and apparent inability to confront his bullying, belitting father Murry and the growing estrangement from the rest of the Beach Boys. When singer and cousin Mike Love berated him for his unorthodox songs from the aborted “Smile” album session, he seemed to have no concern for, or understanding of, Wilson’s shaky emotional state: “Who do you think you are, Mozart? You’re letting us down. Stop thinking about yourself for two seconds.”
Juxtaposed with the ’60s era is the more uncomfortable ’80s period, where John Cusack offers a more subtle portrayal of Wilson as a tentative, broken, insecure man either unable or unwilling to break free of Landy’s dictatorial control. Cusack doesn’t resemble Wilson much, at least not in the way Dano does, but he does a fine job of capturing Wilson’s damaged psyche and tortured soul. And the film explains how, at the time, Wilson clearly needed help, and those who tried seemed full of good intentions, but the punishing 24-hours-a-day regimen of psychotropic medications Landy imposed served only to turn a formerly creative wizard into a pitiful catatonic puppet. The heart breaks as we listen to him chat up his new ladyfriend (and future wife) Melinda Ledbetter, played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks: “Sometimes your soul comes out to play,” he says. “But it can’t be rushed. It’s a very fragile thing. I’m afraid I may lose it and never get it back.”
Even if you’re not a big Beach Boys fan (my wife and several close friends are in this category), this movie is a must see. “Love and Mercy” is filmmaking and storytelling at its best. The studio scenes alone are worth the price of admission for their insight into Wilson’s mindblowing creative process, especially during the making of Wilson’s finest moment, the achingly gorgeous “God Only Knows”: “I may not always love you, but long as there stars above you, you never need to doubt it, I’ll make you so sure about it, God only knows what I’d be without you…”