We are living, it kind of seems to me, in a moment when the traditional biopic is being exploded in all kinds of interesting ways. Selma & The Imitation Game eschew telling a whole life story and instead focus on a particular period; Mr. Turner refuses to cohere into anything like traditional narrative at all. And then there’s this wonderful deconstruction of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, musical genius behind Pet Sounds & Good Vibrations and mentally ill drug addict. Pohlad focuses on a period in the 1960s beginning when Wilson began work on Pet Sounds, still one of the best albums I personally have ever heard, and following him through his mental collapse into paranoia, drug abuse and some sort of schizophrenia. Wilson is played in this section by Paul Dano and it’s an amazing performance from one of the finest young actors of today, just another in a never-ending string of performances I almost want to call “disappearances” so fully does Dano disappear into his characters. Pohlad also focuses on a period in the eighties when Wilson, played in this section by a hang-dog John Cusack, is under the sway of an abusive crackpot of a psychiatrist, played with real menace and rage by Paul Giamatti. This also details the romance between Wilson and the woman he would eventually marry, played here by Elizabeth Banks. What Pohlad has done is eschew traditional narratives in order to link things thematically; the film jumps back and forth between time periods instead of simply moving chronologically and it always just feels right when the film moves in that way. Personally, I found this film constantly engaging. The sections surrounding the Pet Sounds recording sessions are pure exuberance and joy and it’s heartbreaking to see Wilson’s world collapse in on itself; Dano has a scene involving headphones, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. Meanwhile, Giamatti is fantastic as always in a role he can really dig into and Elizabeth Banks, always an underrated actress in my opinion, is nothing short of tremendous. She’s career best, I’d say. But let me go back to Cusack & Dano for a minute because I really can’t say enough good about their performances. Dano in particular, but also Cusack. Neither of them attempt anything even remotely approaching an imitation; they aren’t doing voices or body language or verbal tics – they’re just getting to the emotional heart of Wilson. And they do it so perfectly that when Dano’s version of Wilson disappears from the film for the last few scenes, it doesn’t even feel jarring; the film and the performances have so convinced you, by that time, that Dano & Cusack are the same character that you feel the presence of both of them in Wilson at the end, even though only Cusack is on screen. Oh and the score/sound design is incredible; Atticus Ross creates this astounding sonic soup that veers from exalted to sorrowful to terrifying in an effort to put us inside Wilson’s head, a place where music seems to be perpetually playing even in his best times. Anyway, it’s a masterfully directed film with a strikingly unique vision; but the amazing quartet of actors at its center elevate it even more. It’s a film that continues to grow in my estimation the longer I live with it. I think it’s a masterpiece, albeit one with a few flaws here & there. So, anyway, watch this movie & listen to Pet Sounds. Not necessarily in that order; you know, whatever. Highly recommended. 4 stars
tl;dr – a quartet of brilliant performances elevate a “biopic” that already has a lot of fascinating ideas and unique perspectives going for it. 4 stars.