Love and Mercy, the new bio pic about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a searing portrait of a musical genius who suffered from an abusive father, mental illness and an abusive psychotherapist.
The film, directed by Bill Pohlad, takes an interesting and effective approach, using two actors to portray Wilson.
Paul Dano plays the young Wilson, of the 1960s, while John Cusack plays Wilson in the 1980s, after he came under the care and guardianship of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The film’s narrative moves back and forth between the younger and older Wilson, which helps with the pacing of the story, a key element when showing a character’s inner life as much as their outer.
After a panic attack, Wilson withdraws from touring with the popular Beach Boys—made up of his brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine—and decides to devote his energy to making “the greatest album ever made.”
The film is most alive when showing the making of Pet Sounds, which indeed came to be seen as one of the greatest albums ever made. Wilson’s genius, his detailed attention to combining the sounds of various instruments—many not used in a pop song recording—and the harmonies of the Beach Boys, is on display. We learn of the competition they felt with the Beatles after the release of Revolver, and the Beatles, inspired by Pet Sounds, later produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which many consider the greatest album ever made.
While under the care of Dr. Landy, Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who sells him a Cadillac. They begin dating, but are rarely alone, since Landy and his assistants accompany Wilson wherever he goes. While the controlling, abusive Landy character seems outlandish at times, he was apparently every bit as bad or worse.
Dano and Cusack are excellent in their portrayals, with Dano carrying more of the screen time, while Cusack’s role is more subtle.
The film effectively shows the growing torment Wilson experiences as he hears voices in his head and experiences anxiety. But some of these scenes go on too long and drag, hindering the film’s pacing.
Love and Mercy (the title comes from a 1988 song by Wilson) is a powerful exploration of one man’s descent into mental illness and his emergence into a measure of health. It’s an enjoyable depiction of the creation of a great piece of music. And it shows the power of love and mercy to rescue a person from those wanting to control him.
And for those who love The Beach Boys’ music, there’s plenty of that as well.