It was 1961 in the Southern California city of Hawthorne. Three brothers, a cousin, and a high school friend formed a group that would grow into one of the biggest American bands in music history. They called themselves The Beach Boys, a reference to their harmonious “California Sound”. They would go on to sell over 100 million records and have 36 Top 40 hits. The creative center of the group was Brian Wilson.
“Love & Mercy” is a dual narrative biographical drama about the life of Brian Wilson. The film hops back and forth between two specific timelines. One takes place in the 60s and follows a young Brian during the band’s heyday. The second takes us to the 80s where Brian’s life is dictated by opportunistic handlers and heavy medications.
There are two important creative decisions that help distinguish this from other films of its type. First, director Bill Pohlad keeps his focus strictly on these two periods of Wilson’s life. It’s a wise move that distances the film from more conventional structures. The periods don’t always feel connected and there are times where the leaps from one period to the other are a bit clunky. Still I appreciated the nuanced approach and they both helped tell a compelling and personal story.
Second, “Love & Mercy” is a very inward-looking biopic. It is much more interested in showing the inner brilliance of Brian Wilson on a creative level as well as the mental and emotional turmoil that sends his life careening out of control. We spend a lot of time inside his head surrounded by voices and swirls of sound. We also spend a lot of time examining the aftermath. This is all calculated and much more interesting than I was expecting.
Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson from the 60s. Dano is an actor who can play certain roles well, but they have to be very specific to his narrow talents. This happens to be one of those roles. Dano stares into space, makes weird faces, and relays a general awkwardness – all things that he can do very well. But I don’t want to sell him short. He is very in tune with his character and with Pohlad’s vision. I like Dano a lot here. It’s a very human portrayal. But he also keenly shows us Wilson’s creative drive. He does all of this through a cleverly understated performance.
Dano takes us through Wilson’s struggle with the pressures of being in a hugely popular band. The stresses, the panic attacks, and eventually the drugs. John Cusak plays Wilson in the 1980s, a shell of a man mentally damaged by his past but also by a leech of a psychotherapist and guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Cusak is given a much different role than Dano and he too succeeds in showing us another phase of this complicated life.
At this point Wilson is a man on a leash with literally no life to call his own. That changes when he meets a goodhearted car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). She catches glimpses of the real Brian buried inside by Landy’s mental oppression. She likes what she sees and she is willing to fight the sleazeball Landy. Banks does a really good job drawing personality out of Wilson. It is through their relationship that we see this Brian Wilson as more than a heavily sedated zombie. And Giamatti, well he is always fantastic at playing a scumbag.
As I’ve pointed out there are so many things “Love & Mercy” does well. There are some small bumps, but ultimately the biggest reason it succeeds is because it operates in human terms. It doesn’t bog itself down by adhering to the common mainstream biopic formula. Instead it shows us what made this creative genius tick. Do we ever truly understand where that drive and inspiration came from? Not exactly, other than it came from the same dark place that eventually broke him. This is compelling stuff. It is a story worth telling and “Love & Mercy” tells it really well.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Another on my list to catch up to. Fine review, Keith.
Thanks my friend. This was a nice little treat. Smart and willing to stay true to its vision.
Very well said man. This remains one of my favorites of the year because of its deeply human element. And the performances top-to-bottom are fantastic. I think I was endeared to it even more b/c I wasn’t expecting a biopic about The Beach Boys (a band I don’t much pay attention to) to be this affecting.
Thanks Tom. It surprised me mainly because I was expected it to be pretty standard stuff. I had read practically nothing about it which only added to the surprise. And hats off to Dano and Cusak, right?
Absolutely. I think a lot of my enthusiasm was earned from the interesting structure. And the fact Dano and Cusak both went all-in for their roles made for an all-around strong package. It made for a very emotional and achingly nostalgic movie
It was also interesting for me because my parents grew up listening to 1960s music. So when I was a kid they were constantly playing “the oldies” in the car. The Beach Boys were part of that. But back then you didn’t have the easy information flow we have today. Roger Ebert once said that you never view a movie as your source of information. But you can still learn from them. I felt I did learn some things about Brian Wilson I didn’t know before.
Excellent review Keith! I will have to check this out if I come across it!
It’s a good one. I think some people really, really love it. I’ve heard some calling it one of the year’s very best. I didn’t quite have that strong of a reaction but I do think it does so much right. And the performances are great.
What do you think of Paul Dano? Honestly, there isn’t much he has done that I have liked. He’s really good here.
Paul Dano is a consistent actor, but he always plays someone who is so weird!
To me he is such a limited actor. In certain specific roles he is good (this is the of them). In other roles he sticks out like a sore thumb (ala 12 Years a Slave). Performances like this though…pretty impressive.
I haven’t seen him in too much. He was a bit awkward there, but he was really good in things like Prisoners and There Will Be Blood. Like I said, very weird.
Oh I forgot about Prisoners. He was good in that.
I get the impression from the review you’re not much of a Dano fan usually…is that right? Good to read a review of this; it was one of my favourites of the summer and I really liked both sides of the story; Banks was a surprise for me…thought she was excellent. As a Beach Boys fan I loved seeing all the restaged recording sessions and all that. The only downside for me was Giamatti. Way over the top…although I’m not sure to what extent the writing and directing is to blame for his performance.
You’re right. I’m not a big fan of Dano. I often find him a bit distracting (and not in a good way). 12 Years a Slave immediately comes to mind. But this is right up his alley. I thought he was really good. I appreciated his work in Ruby Sparks as well. Ever see that one?
Yeah I thought he was OK in Ruby Sparks, and I like him generally, but I agree with you re 12 Years A Slave. This is probably the best I’ve seen him since There Will Be Blood, though.
I adore There Will Be Blood but initially I had a problem with Dano. But over time I began to appreciate how his performance helped define that character. A wormy, spineless huckster. Dano conveys that.
Great review. I really liked this movie too and you’re right, the focus on two defined periods of Brian Wilson’s life really enhanced the story.
It was one of those pop-up surprises. I never had it on my radar. I love it when we get little surprises like this.
You’ve been watching a ton of great films lately Keith! I missed this one but I really should check it out given the MN connection. Bill Pohlad is a great supporter of MN film including TCFF so it’s cool to see him direct something that’s dear to his heart.
A big supporter? That’s really cool. He definitely impresses here. As does Dano. I know we’ve talked about him in the past. I think this is one of his finer performances.
I absolutely loved this movie. One of my favourites of the year!
It was good. Didn’t expect much but I LOVE being surprised!