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