Review: 'Love & Mercy' a stunning biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

Paul Dano and John Cusack shine in this brilliant biopic of Brian Wilson.
Published June 2 2015

Wouldn't it be nice if every musical biopic were as creatively nimble as Love & Mercy, the story of Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson?

Much of what sets Love & Mercy apart from traditional biographies like Ray and Walk the Line is Wilson himself, a tortured genius whose history isn't show business as usual. Love & Mercy has its share of uplift, not from Wilson beating long odds or addiction but coming to terms with his inner demons, forging a truce. It's a remarkable movie, the first of 2015 that I can't wait to see and hear again.

Love & Mercy is co-written by Oren Moverman, whose screenplay for 2007's I'm Not There envisioned Bob Dylan's career in six stages, each played by different actors in expressionist vignettes. Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner pare down Wilson's fractured genius to two stages, more conventionally portrayed by separate actors, with director Bill Pohlad shuttling between a pair of eras vital to understanding the musician.

One is the early-to-mid 1960s, when the Beach Boys dominate radio with sun-kissed California surf rock. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) plays younger Brian at his innovative peak and emotional cliff, obsessively creating Pet Sounds, considered by many to be one of rock's greatest albums ever. The other era is the 1980s when middle-aged Brian, now played by John Cusack, is coerced into seclusion, constantly surveilled and over-medicated by shady therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Love of music drives Brian insane but mercy arrives in the form of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac dealer unsettled, then intrigued, by this strangely aloof customer. Melinda becomes as much of a girlfriend as Landy allows, unwilling to share or lose his cash cow. Piece by piece, she puts Brian together again, not whole but functional, as anyone who has seen Wilson in concert lately will attest. Again, not a typical dynamic for any movie biography.

Pohlad confidently pulls off this dual narrative in what is practically his directing debut (he made 1990's forgotten Old Explorers). Since then, Pohlad's reputation was built on producing quality independent films, including the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave. Love & Mercy greatly benefits from Pohlad's producing connections, attracting crew talent that a neophyte wouldn't. Two in particular deserve singling out.

Sound design and mixing isn't often as vital to Pohlad's storytelling as the work here by Eugene Gearty and Nicholas Renback. Love & Mercy is packed with Beach Boys music, of course, but finds another plane of aural expression in Brian's head, a swirl of voices, ambient sounds and musical snippets from which pop music milestones emerge. Listen for a brilliant sound choice when Brian picks up Melinda for their first date: We hear her earrings lightly jingle, knowing he may use the tone later in the studio, like a dog's bark or a train whistle. That's how deeply Pohlad draws viewers into Brian's creative process.

Dano and Cusack each deliver superb performances in different ways. Dano bears a remarkable resemblance to young Brian, with his swept-aside hairdo, beady eyes and weak chin conveying the exuberance and anxiety of youth, and a soul-crushing desire to create. Cusack looks nothing like Brian yet remains fully committed to his psychosis throughout, evoking not only a disorder but the yearning for normalcy beneath. Banks solidly supports Cusack while Giamatti overacts mightily under an unfortunate toupee, one of the film's few notable flaws.

Love & Mercy gets its title from the opening track of Wilson's 1988 comeback album, and the real deal is shown performing it during the end credits. He still appears detached from reality, except for the music and the blond savior by his side. Maybe that's all he needs to be truly happy. Wouldn't it be nice?

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] ar (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.