In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
‘Love & Mercy’ is a tender and moving biopic about Brian Wilson, the supremely talented founding member of The Beach Boys. The film follows Wilson in two time periods, the younger version in the 60’s (played by Paul Dano) and a middle aged version in the late 80’s (played by John Cusack), with both narratives telling distinct stories about Wilson’s life. Director Bill Pohlad is more known as a producer but his work behind the camera is outstanding here, eschewing the traditional chronological approach to a biopic by utilising an unorthodox method to draw the two narrative strands together. He’s helped by his terrific cast, with Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks supporting Cusack and Dano’s twin portrayals of Wilson.
The aspect in the 60’s focuses more on the process of making music and it’s one of the most insightful films I’ve seen in that regard as it showcases the creation of many of the Beach Boys famous songs bit by bit. It’s a perfect approach to emphasise just how talented Wilson was, and how his vision and style clashed with the approach preferred by his father and their record company (which was to continue with the surfer pop style which had made them famous). This narrative strand is largely successful through Paul Dano’s wonderful performance, which conveys Wilson’s genius whilst touching on his increasingly fragile mental state. There’s an ethereal and almost dreamlike quality to these sequences and Pohlad uses some wonderful imagery of the ocean in particular to evoke feelings of time and to really get inside Wilson’s headspace.
The section in the 80’s focuses on an increasingly lonely and isolated Wilson, who is struggling with mental illness whilst under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a controlling man who appears to be using Wilson’s talent for his own ends. Where Dano’s Wilson was distant and wistful, Cusack’s is vulnerable and weak, and Cusack is just as outstanding in his portrayal. Elizabeth Banks features heavily in this section as Melinda Ledbetter, a women who encounters Wilson in a car showroom and begins a relationship with him. More commonly known for comedic roles, Banks is terrific here, showing off her dramatic chops, and she has excellent chemistry with Cusack and their relationship is truly touching. Whilst it does feel at times as if there are two different films going on, Pohlad does well to connect the two strands by intercutting frequently and drawing parallels between events in both timelines which help to expand the story thematically.
‘Love & Mercy’ is a distinctive and personal biopic about Brian Wilson that focuses on two key periods in his life through two outstanding performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack. The sequences in the 60’s are a thrilling showcase of the creative process behind classic albums such as ‘Pet Sounds’, and they’re intercut superbly with the sequences in the 80’s, focusing on Wilson’s personal struggles at this time. Overall, ‘Love & Mercy’ is an excellent film about a musical genius and it deserves your time, Beach Boys fan or not.
Directed By: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Jake Abel, Bill Camp and Paul Giamatti