– It may not convince anyone not already pre-disposed to agree that the Beach Boys were one of the greatest musical artists of all time, but for adoring fans who appreciate Wilson’s legacy “Love & Mercy” is both magical in its depiction of the artist’s gifts and heartbreaking in its revelation of his personal struggles. The film takes chances with its script and particularly in its casting choices, but these turn out to be nearly as inspired as its subject material. The story focuses on the seminal 60s-era band’s iconic and enigmatic singer-songwriter Brian Wilson, who is portrayed in two vastly different but incredibly effective performances by actors Paul Dano and John Cusack.
Directed adeptly by Bill Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” only hints at the Beach Boys’ rise to popularity as the kings of California surf music by juxtaposing two important eras in Brian Wilson’s life. In one, Paul Dano beautifully, almost eerily and marvelously captures Wilson as the Beach Boys’ fame begins to take its toll on the band at a time when he is determined to take their music in groundbreaking, more complex directions. (All the while Wilson painfully aches to win his father’s approval—hard to imagine.) Scenes depicting the recording sessions for “Pet Sounds” are nothing short of breathtaking. Wilson, without involving his fellow band members, experimented with all kinds of instruments and (as the title suggests) animals in the studio and instructed the seasoned musicians to play the music exactly the way he heard it in his head. The powerfully-mixed music, both original and new, is often uncannily sung by Dano and is utterly captivating –the young actor’s performance is completely convincing and is worthy of Oscar consideration.
At first, John Cusack’s take on the 80s era Wilson, controlled by guardian Eugene Landy (a typically brilliantly commanding Paul Giamatti), as drugged-up and zoned-out is harshly abrupt for no other reason than the gifted actor doesn’t look anything like Wilson. But perhaps that was the point—that by this time Wilson was only a shadow of his former self. But no matter, Cusack delivers a career high point by capturing this pathetic and still sympathetic chapter in the rock star’s life without cliché.
What grounds the film and aids it profoundly is the perspective of Wilson’s sweetheart (and future second wife) Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who didn’t know Wilson was a rock star when she met him in the early 80s while trying to sell him a Cadillac. Ledbetter consulted on the film, so her character is treated rather angelically. But Banks, practically devoid of her sumptuous comic gifts, gives a tender, compassionate performance.
“Love & Mercy” isn’t the traditional musical-hero bio, and it doesn’t aim to be. This is a film that explores the life of a musical genius while illuminating the vulnerabilities that made the man so fragile and his music so miraculous.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language.