Abused by his controlling father as a child, overcome with mental illness and eventually manipulated by his doctor for a number of years, it’s safe to say that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson has had a tumultuous life. That he managed to write and produce numerous hit singles and critically acclaimed albums speaks to a remarkable talent winning out in the face of extreme adversity.
Such is the focus of Bill Pohlad’s gripping biopic Love & Mercy, which focuses on two crucial times in Wilson’s life. The script, from Michael A. Lerner and I’m Not There scribe Oren Moverman, flits between the 60’s and the 80’s, telling the story of Wilson’s rise to stardom and the time he spent living as an over-medicated recluse respectively.
In the 60’s, we see the young Wilson (Paul Dano) trying to craft his masterpiece album Pet Sounds while dealing with the early effects of the psychosis that would eventually put the brakes on his musical career. Brian’s new ideas and unorthodox compositions don’t sit well with some of the band, particularly Mike (Jake Abel) who thinks the band needs to get back to the sun n’ fun style of the band’s earlier records.
There are some fascinating scenes of Wilson composing some of the Beach Boys’ best known songs, confounding the hired musicians and frustrating some of the band, but it’s intriguing to see the songs come together in this way. There’s a particularly moving scene of Brian playing an early version of God Only Knows on the piano to his abusive father Murry (Bill Camp) that definitely leans on the power of the song but the way the scene comes together and Dano’s performance are both excellent.
The later version of Wilson, played by John Cusack, is a borderline recluse who isn’t allowed to leave the house or converse with anyone without his doctor Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) or his goons following him and listening to his conversations. Landy has made Brian believe he is a paranoid schizophrenic, regularly over-medicating him and getting involved in some shady business dealings. When Brian meets charming car saleswoman Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), the two begin a tentative relationship that doesn’t sit well with Landy who can sense that Melinda is on to him and might cause him some problems.
Love & Mercy essentially rests on three fantastic central performances. Firstly, there’s Dano’s most likeable, sympathetic and sensitive performance to date as the young Wilson, finding pathos as a young man burdened with genius and fame succumbing to his ever-growing mental illness. Then there is Cusack’s turn as the older Wilson, quiet and vaguely spaced out but still sweet and soft-spoken. Cusack is often very open about the fact that most of his films are done purely for the paycheque and very few he actually cares about. This is presumably one of the latter, as it’s Cusack’s best turn in years. He’s a little bit twitchy and a little bit eccentric, but never over the top and his performance follows on from Dano’s perfectly.
Also fantastic is Elizabeth Banks, whose Melinda is the only one who treats Brian as a person and doesn’t want anything from him. Her smart, sweet exterior conceals a steely resolve that eventually is crucial to getting Brian out of the toxic situation he’s in with Landy. Banks and Cusack have a number of quietly moving scenes together, with Banks thinly masking her surprise and heartbreak anytime Brian casually discusses the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father.
Less successful is Giamatti, who turns Landy into a one-note, ranting villain who is at odds with the more nuanced nature of the rest of the film. Pohlad largely eschews the routine biopic formula which makes the simplistic portrayal of Landy all the more egregious.
Ultimately, Love & Mercy doesn’t tell the entire story of Wilson’s life but it does a great job of conveying the core character of a musical legend through two key periods in his life, without straying into music biopic cliche. Come for the great music – used to sensational effect in Atticus Ross’s score – but stay for the trio of terrific performances at the centre of it all.