LOVE & MERCY

Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bill Pohland
Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Brett Davern, Max Schneider, Joanna Going, Graham Rogers, Diana Maria Riva.

This is an unconventional biopic of Brian Wilson, the songwriter and creative driving force behind 60s band The Beach Boys, whose songs of sun, surf and summer epitomised the California sound. Most biopics of musicians tend to explore their darker side as well as look at that fine line between genius and madness and Love & Mercy is no exception. Wilson was in many ways a genius, but he was also a deeply troubled man, a schizophrenic who later became addicted to pills and alcohol. But if it wasn’t for those voices in his head we may never have got the groundbreaking Good Vibrations, the biggest hit of their career, and a huge influence on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. But Wilson’s psychological problems also intensified the tensions within the band.
Love & Mercy is a sensitive look at the legendary musician’s troubled past, and some of the background information detailed in the film will be familiar to fans of the band – their abusive and domineering father, Brian’s battle with drugs and mental health issues. Love & Mercy has been directed by Bill Pohlad, a producer of the Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave, here directing his first feature in two decades. There is no doubting his passion for the material, which has long been in development. An earlier treatment has been adapted by Oren Moverman (The Messenger, etc), who provides a nice balance between the darker downbeat moments and some upbeat, redemptive moments.
The film looks at two distinct periods in Wilson’s life – the 60s when the band was at its peak and when Wilson’s mental state began to deteriorate, and the late 80’s when the fragile Wilson was in the care of shonky psychologist Dr Eugene Landy (a bewigged and typically sleazy Paul Giamatti), a controlling Svengali-like figure who had him on a diet of pills and medications and had made himself the singer’s legal guardian.
It was the love and devotion of Cadillac car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) whom Wilson met by chance that eventually rescued him from Landy’s poisonous presence and slowly restored him to health.
Wilson is played by two different actors in the two different time frames of the film, a bold casting move that strangely works and pays off. In the 60s the mop haired Wilson is played by Paul Dano, who seems to be the go to actor of choice to play troubled young men – consider his work in films like James Marsh’s The King, Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, and more recently the disturbing psychological thriller Prisoners. Dano gives a superbly nuanced performance, and he makes the most of this emotionally demanding role as the more vulnerable and unhinged Wilson. He has the meatier and more demanding part and also delivers the more compelling performance as he captures Wilson’s boyish enthusiasm and energy.
In the 80s the older and damaged Wilson is played by John Cusack; although he doesn’t really physically resemble Dano, Cusack captures many of his mannerisms and tics. His Wilson is more damaged and barely functioning, and Cusack gets to deliver a fairly mannered performance here.
Banks is better known for her comedic roles, but here she brings strength and a fierce determination and compassion to her role as the woman who turned Wilson’s life around. And the always strong Giamatti is intense and frightening as the controlling and unpleasant Landy, but it is a performance that lacks any shades or nuances.
The soundtrack is excellent and crammed full of hits from the era which will resonate strongly with audiences of a certain age. There is an extended sequence exploring the recording sessions of the classic psychedelic concept album Pet Sounds, and in particular the song Good Vibrations, with the perfectionist Wilson frustrating the rest of band with his drive and intense commitment to realise his vision, and this is one of the highpoints of the film. The film takes its title from a song from Wilson’s self titled comeback album from 1988, and over the final credits we get vision of the real life Wilson performing a live version of that song that adds a poignant footnote to what we have just seen.
Love & Mercy was made with Wilson’s support and cooperation, so it is safe to assume that it has somehow sanitised the darker elements of the story. For fans of The Beach Boys though, this is essential viewing. But even the uninitiated will find Love & Mercy by turns fascinating, revealing and heartbreaking.
★★★

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