Review: Two-actor casting works for Brian Wilson biopic

Compelling story of Brian Wilson, the musical genius of The Beach Boys, is told by two actors in two time periods

Paul Dano as the younger Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys in the 1960s. -- PHOTO: CATHAYKERIS FILMS
Paul Dano as the younger Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys in the 1960s. -- PHOTO: CATHAYKERIS FILMS

Review Biopic


120 mins/Opens tomorrow/4/5

The story: This biopic follows the legendary Brian Wilson, singer-songwriter of The Beach Boys, whose creative genius and immense success came at the cost of abuse from certain people around him. Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson in the 1960s when he is beginning to show signs of being manic-depressive with schizoaffective disorder. John Cusack plays the older Wilson in the 1980s, whose life is taken over by the controlling therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

This biopic takes the unusual approach of casting two different actors to play the same person, never mind that stars Paul Dano and John Cusack look nothing alike.

Even more bizarre is the fact that both actors were conscious to never compare notes on how they would each portray their character.

Then again, the man at the centre of it all here is the very unconventional Brian Wilson, the musical genius of The Beach Boys whose life went through such drastically distinct stages that the independent, dual perspective actually makes perfect sense.

Close friends of Wilson himself have noted time and again on how the musician speaks of his younger self in a completely dispassionate manner, as if he were a disconnected third party.

So it is commendable that despite the film's constant back-and-forth between two disparate stories set in two time periods - one in the 1960s at Wilson's creative peak and one in the 1980s when the now semi-recluse is heavily sedated by meds - all of it comes together to form a coherent and compelling story about one extraordinary man.

There is never any doubt that the actors are playing the same person: Dano's younger version shows signs of mental stress early on as he begins to hear voices and have panic attacks, paving the way for Cusack's miserable hazy presence.

These are award-worthy performances, where they display all the heart and compassion inherent within this increasingly troubled man.

When the credits roll and the real Wilson - who gave his approval for this film to be made - is shown fully recovered and singing the titular song at a live performance, it is powerful, moving stuff.

The film's best scenes, however, are reserved for the younger Wilson in the studio, where he feels most comfortable and at home. Much is dedicated to the creative process behind the making of the progressive album Pet Sounds (1966), which fared poorly commercially but has since been cited as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

Watching him come up with newfangled ways to play with sound, such as incorporating dog barks and bicycle bells into his tunes - especially when his own bandmates showed clear doubt - is exhilarating.

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