clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Paul Dano and John Cusack paint an epic Beach Boy portrait in powerful 'Love & Mercy'

"Pet Sounds" is a beautiful and creative album, by far the most memorable and definitive work Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys ever produced. The album marked the group’s transition from surf band into true artistry, and according to the new Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” it also marked the descent of the band’s creative leader into years of illness and abuse at the hands of Dr. Eugene Landy.

“Love & Mercy” is a striking and moving film, a somber, two-toned love letter to Wilson and the album it shows him composing. If you are a Beach Boys fan, you have to see it. If you aren’t, you should probably see it anyway.

The film toggles between two storylines. In the first, a twenty-something Brian (played by Paul Dano) has stepped away from the band’s relentless touring. Inspired by the Beatles’ "Rubber Soul" album, he is focused on taking his band’s music to a new, more mature level.

The second story takes place decades in the future as a traumatized Wilson (now played by John Cusack) struggles under the oppressive hand of Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The common thread in the storylines is Wilson’s chaotic mental state, painted as a kaleidoscope of stress, anxiety, substance abuse issues and mental illness. Dano’s depiction shows Wilson’s breakdown, while Cusack tries to bring Wilson back through a budding relationship with an ex-model-turned-car-saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

The film may come as a shock to anyone whose familiarity with the Beach Boys tops out with images of surfboards and memories of “California Girls.” But some shocks are well worth having.

“Love & Mercy” may not spend a lot of time covering the happy times and sunny hits of the Beach Boys, but there is plenty of music at the heart of this film. Director Bill Polhad takes us through Wilson’s creative process in developing songs like “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” without allowing the documentary element to bog down the narrative.

Dano and Cusack’s performances complement each other perfectly, nailing Wilson’s tics and nuances with a great natural quality. An early monologue from Dano should strike familiar notes with anyone who has seen a Wilson interview, and Cusack carries a weariness that captures the ambiguity of the artist’s condition.

The two portraits of Wilson are enhanced by strong turns from the supporting cast. While the 1960s half of the film is shot from Wilson’s perspective, we see the latter half from Melinda’s, and Banks’ performance is easy to sympathize with next to the creepiness and gurgling rage Giamatti gives Dr. Landy.

“Love & Mercy” is also a departure from previous musical biopics like “Ray,” “Walk the Line” and last year’s “Get On Up.” In all those cases, as well as this one, a legendary musician is showcased warts and all, celebrating triumphant talent while mourning the wreckage of family and friends strewn along the way. Wilson’s first marriage also failed, but “Love & Mercy” seems to downplay that part of his history and tries to make him more of a universally sympathetic character.

Painting Wilson in such a light may compromise the objectivity of “Love & Mercy,” but the film’s strengths easily outweigh its few weaknesses.

“Love & Mercy” is rated PG-13 for drug content, profanity and some frightening moments.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.