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God only knows what’s going through Brian Wilson’s head. Portrayed by Paul Dano in Love and Mercy, the film dedicated to him by Bill Pohlad, says “without understanding where it comes from”. That’s the music, his music. The unique sound of the Beach Boys, of which he wrote and performed most of the songs and which he seems to hum with such ease.
But his texts are often light only on the surface. As the Beach Boys’ career progresses, the orchestration ventures into more dazzling sonorities, the rhythms change, the melody turns wistful.
Like his songs, Brian Wilson hides many things under his good-natured airs: he is diagnosed – abusively, later the doctors will estimate – schizophrenic. Perhaps he is especially surprised by “not understand” that something coherent, a fortiori beautiful, can emerge from the hubbub of music and voices that fills his head.
At the height of this turmoil, in the 1970s, there was a long depression. Therefore, the musician bends. Paul Dano plays the Brian of yesteryear, overcoming his vertigo to take the Beach Boys to their artistic peak, with the album pet sounds. John Cusack plays the Brian after the fall, trying to get up under the reassuring gaze of a woman.
Duplication is risky: It went poorly for Todd Haynes, who had put himself in the lead, with I’m not there (2007), to revive Bob Dylan in a kaleidoscope, with six different actors. Built around two actors, love and mercy it is simpler than it seems: it builds not a face to face, but a curious triangulation around Dano, Cusack and the depressive Brian that a third actor could embody, offscreen, the dark side that we are forced to imagine.
From this coming and going, a single character emerges, surprisingly clear. Like music, form emerges from apparent disorder. Furthermore, more than the euphoria of the concerts, the impeccable product that comes out of the studio, love and mercy he’s interested in the in-between states of the Beach Boys’ sound. First, that primitive din in Brian’s head, which an inspired mise-en-scène tries more to make felt than to imitate: a mixture of voices, shouts, notes, which he finds as if by accidental moments of harmony, like an orchestra tuning up.
This studied cacophony is not always pleasing to the ear, but its effect is doubly beautiful. It perfectly conveys the feeling of the composer’s inner chaos, it shows like a miracle his ability to get a form out of all this, and even more so a song. And because it destroys to reconstruct better, it allows the ears, too comfortably installed in the memory of a music that we think we know by heart, to listen again. Only God knows as if discovering it for the first time.
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