Few musicians are as deserving of a biopic than Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the era-defining sound of The Beach Boys. Director Bill Pohlad crafts an emotionally immersive and stylistically ambitious portrait that pays tribute to Wilson’s unparalleled creativity, whilst also delving into the struggles that shaped the man in his early and later life.
Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) write Love & Mercy, a biopic that chronicles Wilson’s life in the 1960’s when The Beach Boys were at the height of their popularity, and the 1980’s when the barely-functioning musician (John Cusack) was trapped under the controlling grip of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
In the scattershot portrait Pohlad parallels Wilson’s inspired creativity as a musician in the sixties with the broken, doped-up victim he has become under the control of the leeching Dr. Landy in the eighties. Whilst Lerner and Moverman’s screenplay makes no direct correlation between Wilson’s tough relationship with his continually disapproving father and his experimentations with hard drugs in his early years to his subsequent ‘imprisonment’ by Landy in the eighties – the intercutting structure of the two chronologies implies it did play a part in damaging the vulnerable Wilson and making him more susceptible to manipulation.
Paul Dano immerses himself in the role of the young Wilson: successfully capturing the musician’s ambition and wide-eyed creativity when picking up in 1965 where he decides he won’t tour with the band and will focus on preparing material for their next album. Pohlad crafts a vibrancy in the studio-set scenes which follows exploring the inspiration that hits the young musician and the creative process behind legendary Beach Boys‘ albums Pet Sounds and Smile. Whilst this inspiration is happening, a grim tone also takes hold of the sixties scenes as Wilson experiments with LSD resulting in both a more esoteric mental state and musical style – one that would cause rifts with some bandmates. These trippier scenes allow Pohlad to play with a more experimental aesthetic and intriguing use of sound.
Sound plays a key part in crafting the distinct style of Love & Mercy and much praise should go to sound mixer Edward Tise. As Wilson begins to hear voices in his head (presumably a side effect of the LSD) Tise presents some innovative moments of sound design: from a clattering dinner party (intensified in Wilson’s mind) to the brutal whacks of Cusack’s fists when describing his father’s abuse to girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (an excellent Elizabeth Banks) – Tise’s sounds echo with a startling intensity. The Beach Boys’ musical output has never sounded better and Love & Mercy pays fitting tribute to the groups’ finest releases: God Only Knows, Good Vibrations, In My Room etc. (Sadly there’s no Kokomo or Still Cruisin’ here for fans of later Beach Boys’ pop).
Cusack’s Wilson is equally astounding as Dano’s and feels like a believable snapshot of how the character would transition. The understated actor brings an almost childlike vulnerability to the fold (haunted by past abuses and his current relationship with Landy), whilst channelling Wilson’s intriguing perspectives, mannerisms, and musical spark. This is juxtaposed with the ferocity in Giamatti’s performance as the snake-like Landy in the shocking true life account of his manipulation – which makes for fascinating cinematic fare.
For fans of the band there is enough nostalgic moments to enjoy that casual viewers will miss out on. Wilson’s tense relationship with cousin and fellow Beach Boy, Mike Love, (still prickly to this day, even more so after the 2012 reunion) and creative partnership with Van Dyke Parks get a brief look-in. There’s some brief glimpses at Wilson’s relationship with brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald), but these come secondary to focus on the creative process in the sixties.
Like the musical deity it pays tribute to, Love & Mercy is filled with inspiration – resulting in a cinematic triumph of compassion, insight, and winsome nostalgia. Never an easy watch, Pohlad’s impressively performed film is an immersive and often emotionally haunting look at the struggles that shaped a genius.