Biopics of any sort are always risky in that they are inevitably predictable. Such is the nature of a rather tame beast. After all, the life and events of the film’s subject matter tend to be already etched in the minds of the audience before ticket is even bought. Moreover, because the story is not only known but known to be real, the genre is often overly conservative in how predictable it is, relying on imitation over innovation.
Thus, the success of biopics often hinges upon their plot’s ability to package some historical figure or pop culture icon into a superhero’s origin myth. In both Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), the plot of the film’s universe expanded from a singular event(s) in the protagonist’s childhood.
The opening sequence of Ray is all black and white piano keys, brass cymbals, fast fingers, and cuts to a black and white tuxedo. Then the camera zooms out to reveal these images reflected in Ray’s sunglasses; what the audience can see is external to him. The camera then cuts to glass bottles on tree branches and his mother attending to the laundry line.
The white sheets float in the hot sun like ghosts, and the notes of Ray’s music are noticeably absent. The past is still and silent, except for the cicadas, those sheets, and his mother’s haunting advice: “Don’t let no one turn you into no cripple.” Then the film moves to a scene where Ray lies to a bus driver so that he can ride out of the South and to Seattle, followed by multiple scenes and montages of both Seattle and The Chitlin’ Circuit.
These travel scenes, the playing in honkytonk bars, and being discriminated against are clearly Ray’s memories. They happened. But the vision of his mother at the laundry line is something else. It happened, and it did not. It is ethereal. About a half hour into the film is the memory of how Ray’s brother died. Present in the memory are the colored bottles hanging from the tree branches, the laundry on the line, and Ray’s mother. There is the memory, and there is the vision. They intermingle in Ray’s mind, behind the sunglasses, as he plays the piano throughout time.
Similarly, Walk the Line (2005) begins in a prison with Johnny Cash fingering a circular saw blade before going on stage. The saw becomes significant as the film reveals that Cash’s brother died in a buzz saw accident. Like Ray, Cash is eternally haunted by this loss, feeling both guilt and responsibility. Music becomes an escape for both men, as drugs become both a punishment and an escape.
These films, in their circular shapes, expand like nonlinear versions of the classic Spider-Man narrative. There is the bite of the radioactive spider and the death of Uncle Ben. Every effect, emotion, and delivery comes back to these early childhood moments, specifically the pain of these early moments. And yet, without this pain, the films suggest neither man could have become a successful musician, much less an iconic force. These are films that tend to render the consumer’s blessing in direct correlation with the artist’s curse.
And Bill Polhad’s Love & Mercy (2014) is not that different, except that it plays more of a shell game with Brian Wilson’s origin myth than these two previously discussed biopics. Instead of featuring one adult Brian Wilson and one childhood Brian Wilson, the film utilizes two adult Brian Wilsons. One played by Paul Dano and the other by John Cusack.
While most biopics, such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) rely on a singular performance, like Denzel Washington’s ability to embody Malcolm’s confidence throughout all of his life’s metamorphoses, Love & Mercy splits the fragility of Brian Wilson’s genius between the performances of Dano and Cusack. Unlike a more experimental biopic like I’m Not There (2007), which featured approximately seven Bob Dylan avatars, this act of fission requires not only each man convincing the audience that he is Brian Wilson but that each man is the same Brian Wilson.
The acting in biopics exists somewhere between caricature and Daniel Day-Lewis as anything. Of course, because none of us ever knew the real John Proctor or Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis is the real thing in a way that can never be disproved. Whereas David Oyelowo had to become Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that could be proven, and the same could be said of Jamie Foxx’s turn as Ray Charles and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Johnny Cash. The more visual footage and audio recordings that exist of a biopic’s protagonist the less any performance can be understood as authentic.
And there is a great deal of Beach Boys footage with which the recent film Love & Mercy must contend. Is it Surfin’ USA or Pet Sounds? Or, is it some hybrid in between, like Smiley Smile? In other words, when Love & Mercy encounters the real footage and memories, it must confront the issue of authenticity. When the film splits its narrative between Dano’s Brian Wilson and Cusack’s Brian Wilson, it does so without suggesting one is more present than the other. The film is something other than flashbacks and memories, marking its concept of time more circular and ongoing than either Ray or Walk the Line.
When Love & Mercy fuses its Brians and its tormented bedrooms, it aims for Pet Sounds. When Wilson (Cusack) and Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) stand in the tortured artist’s old neighborhood, with an overpass obliterating the site of his childhood home and a sign that reads “THE END” marking the end of the road, the film attempts to make something new out of its genre, but, in that moment, is when one remembers the washtub, the buzz saw, and all the old tales.
Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.