Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Bill Pohlad (“Old Explorers”)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and Michael A. Lerner (“August Eighth”)
It may not be the most in-depth biopic on the life and legend of Beach Boys singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, but there’s something to be said for the success the film has in condensing two decades of musical passion and personal trials into two hours of poignant drama all anchored by a pair of performances that interchange with remarkable fluidity and appreciation for the story being told.
For those moviegoers who are not familiar with the American rock ‘n’ roll band The Beach Boys, who started off in the 1960s making surfing-themed music before Wilson changed their course by expanding on their sound and writing songs with more meaning, “Love & Mercy” starts in their early years and switches back and forth between Wilson leading the band to its pinnacle to his continuous battle with mental illness in the 1980s.
As a young Wilson, Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) gives an inspiring performance as we watch him express himself though his experimental methods in the studio despite others questioning his choices. Those studios scenes, especially the ones where Wilson is working on the hit song “God Only Knows,” are telling of the kind of musician Wilson was known to be – impressive, ambitious, and progressive. Dano commands the screen when he has to and purposefully shrinks when the script asks him to allow his personal demons to control him.
This ties in well to the latter part of Wilson’s life when John Cusack (“Grace is Gone”) comes in as the well-worn musician who has found some kind of comfort in letting others dictate what he does and how he does it. Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) plays Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson’s hotheaded psychotherapist who manipulates Wilson into believing he has his mental health in his best interest. There to save Wilson is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who would later become his second wife, a car saleswoman who helps him stand up for himself and make his own decisions. Cusack is touching as an older, broken Wilson and Giamatti and Banks bring out the best and worst in the character on an emotional level.
“Love & Mercy” isn’t a movie about the music Wilson makes, but instead about the man behind the musical talent. It might have been interesting to allow the script to develop in a way that illustrated where in the industry the Beach Boys stood (the Beatles are mentioned as a band they wanted to top), but nothing in the way of music history is explained much. While some might argue the jumping between decades is a debatable storytelling device, it felt necessary to understand how much Wilson changed (and in some cases stayed the same) over the years. Credit screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner for letting the story breathe between all the time changes. “Love & Mercy” captures a compassionate narrative you don’t have to dig too deep to find.
Love and Mercy was seen at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.