John Cusack and Paul Dano play Brian Wilson in two separate chapters in the turbulent life of the Beach Boys front-man. The two time-lines are interspersed throughout, and combine to form an unconventional yet altogether exceptional biopic.
Director Bill Pohlad eschews the usual linear narratives reserved for films such as these, and focuses on two pivotal periods in Wilson’s life. In Dano’s scenes, we see a prodigious, ambitious musician at the height of his powers, trying to create the “greatest album of all time” (which would later become Pet Sounds), while also trying to escape the happy-go-lucky image his band has become entangled with. This 1960s period is merged with a separate storyline in the 80s, in which Cusack’s Wilson – fragile, beleaguered and eccentric – begins a relationship with beautiful car saleswoman Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who presents him with an escape route from the overbearing, drug-inducing clutches of his carer, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
As is perhaps inevitable, there is a much darker story than is evident in much of the Beach Boy’s music. The film proceeds to join the dots between the two versions of Wilson, from his inner demons first pervading into his personal and musical life in the 60s, to being completely in their stronghold later in life, and labelled a paranoid-schizophrenic by those around him. The film exposes the domineering authority figures throughout Wilson’s life, how the physical abuse from his father and the psychological exploitation from Landy have shaped him as a man, and left him mentally scarred. So yes, quite different from the tone of ‘Good Vibrations’.
There are few montages, something often heavily over-used in biopics
That being said, some of the film’s most thrilling scenes come from inside the recording studio, as the younger Wilson conducts orchestras with huge talent and enthusiasm, reminding the audience just how many great songs this man has helped create. Importantly, however, Love & Mercy does not rely too much on the Beach Boy’s musical back-catalogue. There are few montages, something often heavily over-used in biopics, and many scenes have little or no music accompaniment at all, but are no less enticing for it: we are drawn in by the excellent script, and the hugely engaging performances of the actors.
Despite having little resemblance to one another, both Cusack and Dano give believable, committed performances. They are mesmerising in their respective roles, and make it easy to see how the younger man could become the older version. The later storyline is seen through the eyes of Banks’s Melinda, and so it is significant that she imbues her character with such likability and sincerity, especially in the face of Giamatti’s malevolent psychologist. Meanwhile, Bill Pohlad’s direction is consistently captivating; his shifts between young and old always seem somehow unexpected yet perfectly judged, while his exploration of Wilson’s mental troubles leads to abstract visual and musical sequences that are very effective.
Amidst a summer filled with franchise cash-cows such as Terminator: Genisys, Love & Mercy is a refreshingly human film that both entertains and resonates emotionally. Though with such a fascinating story, one could wish that the film was extended to join the dots between young and old a tad more, perhaps exploring how Wilson fell into the grip of Eugene Landy. But then again, a film must be pretty good if the only criticism it provokes is that it left you wanting to see more.