ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

During the ’60s, the Beach Boys were one of America’s hottest rock ‘n’ roll acts, led by the eccentric, multitasking Brian Wilson (Paul Dano). Following a string of “Surfer Rock” hits, Brian looks to expand the band’s horizons with Pet Sounds, his next project which he hopes finally fulfills his obsessive quest to dominate the Beatles. During the recording process, tensions amongst the band members increase and Brian begins exhibiting symptoms of mental illness.

In the ’80s, Brian (John Cusack), now under the care and supervision of controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), is a fractured shell of what he once was. However, when he meets car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the two strike up a relationship that looks to be just what he needs. Yet as she becomes more involved in Brian’s life, she learns of the personal demons that have been haunting him for years as well as Dr. Landy’s true, unsettling intentions.

Save those that have been living under a rock for the past sixty years, everyone knows who the Beach Boys are. Though they never attracted the hysterical levels of hype and mania that the Beatles drew (In all honesty, though, has any other band?), the Californian quintet were America’s answer to Liverpool’s Fab Four and have earned their place as one of the greatest bands in rock history. At the forefront of the band, or more fittingly, running the show behind the scenes, was bassist and primary songwriter Brian Wilson who gradually receded control of the band as his troubles with drug addiction and mental illness deepened.

Even though artists of all avenues hiding tortured souls isn’t a breaking news story by any means, it’s heartbreaking to know that the mastermind behind some of the most uplifting and beautifully written rock music ever made (Paul McCartney, of all people, stated that “God Only Knows” is his favorite song of all-time) battled so many personal demons for so many years (thankfully, Wilson’s condition has improved after finally receiving proper diagnosis and medication).

It should go without saying that Brian Wilson’s story, from his rise to fame to all the obstacles he had to overcome, would make for a compelling film if placed in the right hands, and more than a few have tried to make it happen. Stuck in a development hell of all development hells, a film adaptation of Wilson’s life, also titled Love & Mercy, was proposed in 1988 and was set to star William Hurt as Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss as Landy. While nothing came of that particular project, the Beach Boys got the made-for-TV treatment twice (rather poorly too, I might add): 1990’s Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys and 2000’s The Beach Boys: An American Family. Though there was a brief revival of the biopic in 2006, it wasn’t until 2011 that producers Claire Rudnick Polstein, John Wells and director Bill Pohlad (this being only his second feature film, coming decades after his debut) finally got down to business in putting one together.

Much like the unorthodox narrative style of last year’s Get on Up, Love & Mercy isn’t a typical biopic. This isn’t about the formation of the Beach Boys, their rise to fame and eventual turmoil after becoming rock stars (although there is a nice musical montage that briefly runs through their history all the way up to the making of Pet Sounds). This isn’t really even about the Beach Boys; this is Brian Wilson’s story, specifically two pivotal events: Wilson’s work on the Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile records, and his later years under the care of Eugene Landy, the notoriously unconventional psychologist who misdiagnosed Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic and forced him to take an ungodly amount of wrong medications which actually caused him more harm than the drug use he partook in years before.

Pohlad takes us through some thoroughly fascinating setpieces of Wilson enthusiastically guiding his team of studio musicians through the intricate arrangements that eventually come together to become three of the hugest hits for the Beach Boys – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” – while tackling some of Wilson’s darker issues during that time such as the voices he claims to have been hearing since 1963 and the emotional and physical abuse from his father Murray (a small role terrifically played by Bill Camp). Come the ’80s, the music and the joy behind it has been silenced, but a light at the end of his dark tunnel presents itself through Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who would develop a relationship with Brian and later help pry him out of Landy’s grasp. Writers Oren Moverman (who wrote and directed the great films Rampart and The Messenger) and Michael Alan Lerner do make a mistake in reducing Carl Wilson’s fight against Landy to a quick phone call (Carl was actually very much instrumental in helping his brother), but that aside, they and Pohlad are still able to effectively weave together two compelling films into one, devoting enough care and attention to each of Wilson’s timelines as they bounce back-and-forth smoothly between the two of them.

Even with a wig on his head that is clearly noticeable, Paul Giamatti is still terrifyingly good as the manipulative Landy, a man who was no doubt just as abusive and controlling as Brian’s own father. At first, it appears that Elizabeth Banks’s character is gonna wind up being just another standard girlfriend device, but Banks provides depth and layers to Ledbetter and turns a role that’s usually a trope into a well-rounded character. She’s sweet and knowing all the issues and inner demons Brian reveals to her over time, her patience knows no bounds. But she’s also been used before, and isn’t afraid to let others know when enough is enough.

Casting both John Cusack and Paul Dano to play the same person might initially produce puzzled first impressions, and understandably so. The two look absolutely nothing like each other, though Dano might get a pass for his slight resemblance to a younger Wilson. However, when the spotlight is on both actors, whether or not they resemble the Beach Boys leader becomes irrelevant ’cause these two bring their A-game. Cusack’s role is a little more challenging as the older Brian who’s now worn down and wearied from the toll his mental illness has taken on him. Cusack may have over the past decade done more than his share of throwaway straight-to-DVD flicks, but he’s also done enough strong work throughout his career to prove he’s a great actor when he wants to be, and his performance here is the best work he’s done in years. Though he does effectively capture many of Wilson’s tics and awkward hand gestures when not sitting at a piano, it’s clear as day that Cusack in no way looks like Brian Wilson. That could’ve been a distraction, but he evokes enough pain and overwhelming vulnerability to where the looks don’t matter.

Unlike Cusack who’s been leading man material for nearly 30 years, Paul Dano has always been second fiddle to the other stars, whether it’s Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners. To be certain, he’s a talented actor, though typecast as the off-kilter types, but this is really the first time I’ve seen him get an opportunity to sink his teeth into a strong role and it’s one he takes full advantage of. Dano’s been known to go a little overboard in past showier scenes, but when the situation calls for it here he applies a more nuanced approach which creates a more authentic feel to his character’s eccentric moments.

As unconventional as the musical icon its honoring, Love & Mercy is a strong directorial effort from Bill Pohlad that delves deep into arguably the two highest and lowest moments of the legendary Brian Wilson’s life. Of course, the terrific soundtrack of recognizable Beach Boys hits is terrific, and will hopefully open up younger audiences to the great work the band’s done. But last year’s Jersey Boys proved a biopic can’t survive on great music alone, and this film offers what that film was unable to – two excellently compelling performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack, both of whom paint a “warts and all” yet genuinely sympathetic portrait of Wilson that never once shows any signs of mawkish pandering.

I give Love & Mercy an A- (★★★½).

Review source:


Latest from our Creators