Sound has been an essential part of filmmaking for nearly ninety years, yet is the art and the craft of sound mixing and sound editing is not especially appreciated by modern cinephiles, including this writer. But the recent release of Bill Pohland’s double-sided Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy caused me to stand to stand up and take notice of the film’s truly exception sonic wizardry, which uplifts the film, enhancing the story and giving a voice to the characters’ souls, which too often are unable to speak for themselves.
The most obvious use of sound in a movie about the life of Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind countless hits and the milestone album Pet Sounds, is obviously going to be in the music, and Love & Mercy does not disappoint there. The film begins with credits set to the pleasing tones of mid-‘60s Beach Boys pop-rock, before the sounds greater louder and louder, with more sounds and more music piling on and piling on, adding up until the viewer/listener is unaware of what he is meant to be hearing, or if the theatre has screwed up the sound system, or if they’re having a nervous breakdown.
And then it stops.
Cut to John Cusack, playing the middle-aged Brian Wilson of the 1980s – pale, tired, haggard – lying in a bed of monochrome grey, silent, without words. Without music.
It’s a great moment, and the effect is two-fold. For one thing, it immediately makes the audience conscious and aware of the filmmaker’s use of sound for the rest of the movie: the comparable loudness of the sound, what the source of the sound is, how many sources of sound there are, etc. The second effect is establishing the film’s conception of sound as it exists to Brian Wilson. There is the good sound, or the “good vibrations,” that are represented by the sun-baked beauty of the Beach Boys’ songs, and the joy of creating; then there is bad sound, too much sound, discordant and chaotic and impossible to bear, reflecting Brian’s notorious struggles with mental health; and there is the sound of no sound at all, deafening in its silent fury. If the overburden of sound is comparable to being a passenger on a sloop stormily tossed back and forth between titanic waves, fearful of being violently dashed upon on the rocks, then the silence is what sailors used to call the doldrums – stuck on a ship without wind, without tide, without any movement whatsoever, awaiting whatever fate has in store for you.
This level of craft continues in an early scene. Brian Wilson walks into a Cadillac dealership looking to buy a car, and makes some awkward conversation with saleswoman Melinda – played in what is probably her career peak by a fantastic Elizabeth Banks – before suggesting they sit in the car while he decides what to do. This conversation is carried on while a steady stream of ‘80s soft rock plays in the background, presumably as a diegetic element piping in from the dealership’s muzak system. The scene is unusually layered with sound. Brian and Melinda speak at different volumes – Melinda with a clear, well-enunciated sales rep’s voice, Brian is a shy, quiet voice that is at times barely audible – and the music is playing while the typical sounds (phones ringing, doors opening) of a car dealership continue.
When the scene shifts to Brian and Melinda conversing in the car, Brian suggests they close the doors, and the rest of that sound – other than Melinda and Brian – is shut out with the forceful thud of a Cadillac door slamming shut. At this point, the two characters have gone from making small-talk of sales speak to making a true connection, and the sound design now reflects their intimacy. The world is gone but for these two souls.
Throughout the film, Pohland and the rest of his filmmaking team, including sound designer Eugene Gearty and sound mixer Edward Tise, use varying levels of volume to convey to the audience crucial aspects of the characters. Take for instance, the way that the two actors who play Brian Wilson in the film – Paul Dano plays the younger Brian, at the height of his creative abilities in the 1960s – speak in very different ways, with different tones and timbres. Cusack’s Wilson is quiet, almost mumbling. It’s as though he is afraid that if he raises his voice someone or something is going to attack him. Casting Cusack is quite a canny move, transforming, or rather, eliding the actor’s onscreen persona of a likeable but stressed nebbish into a mentally ill man defined by his pathology. Dano’s Wilson is different. He marches around the studio, giddily shouting out new ideas for instruments and arrangements, enthusing about the new songs, loud and cheerful like an ambulatory tea kettle. Early on in the film, when Brian’s bandmates learn that he hears voices in his head, express concern, but Brian brushes away their fears, joking that he’s “Cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs!” in imitation of that infamously catchy/annoying jingle, with his voice raising up to a higher register and a higher decibel. In other words the young Brian, is creative and energetic, and his voice matches it, while the Brian of the ‘80s is burn out and over-medicated by his quack doctor, cut off from meaningful human interaction, and hardly able to speak.
In one revealing scene, John Cusack’s Brian is on a double date with Melinda and two of her friends. While Melinda and her friends try and get Brian to open up about his time in the Beach Boys, which unintentionally gets Brian reminiscing about his abusive relationship with his father. Casually, Brian brings up spanking children, and remarks that usually a spanking has a certain sound – and begins slapping one of his hands to replicate it – but that his father’s beatings had a different sound. This time Brian punches into his hand with great force and loudness, drawing the restaurant’s attention to him and driving away Melinda’s friends. Here, Pohland uses the textures of sound to add a bit of tension to a scene, provide some crucial knowledge of Brian as a character, and further develop the thematic use of sounds in opposition to each other.
I could go on, as there is hardly a scene that passes in this film that does not do something interesting with the use of sound. But the joy of Love & Mercy is so much in the craft that too much talk about it will take away from the delightful experience of watching the film in theatres, which is highly recommended. What Pohland and company do with Love & Mercy is impressive on a number of levels, but their extensive use of sound makes Love & Mercy one of this year’s essential technical landmarks as well as a film that will no doubt benefit from many viewings and listening to come.