Love & Mercy is a film about Brian Wilson, the famous, rock musician and the chief songwriter for the Beach Boys. Actually it would be more accurate to say that it’s two films. The director, Bill Pohlad, and the screenwriters, Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, weave two separate time periods from Wilson’s life into one tapestry.
One part stars Paul Dano as Wilson in his early 20s, after the success of the Beach Boys has brought him fame and fortune, when the Beatles album Rubber Soul inspires him to try for a more complex and artistic sound for the group, an inspiration that will lead to the classic album Pet Sounds. At the same time, increasing bouts of auditory hallucinations, aggravated if not actually brought on by taking enormous quantities of psychedelics and other drugs, begin to cause fissures in his psyche and conflict in his relationships.
The other part of the film stars John Cusack as Wilson in his late 40s, a clearly tired and traumatized individual, who goes to a dealership to buy a Cadillac and meets a lovely ex-model turned car saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks. He gets her number and asks her out, and she likes him a lot, but gradually discovers that he is under the control of a tyrannical therapist named Gene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, who keeps Wilson heavily medicated while micro-managing his life and taking his money.
Now, if these two parts were separated and presented in chronological order, we’d have a pretty conventional movie. Instead, the film shuttles back and forth between the two storylines, and with the same man played by two different actors, this creates unsettling emotions—a sense of grief combining with a hesitant striving towards hope, to poignant effect.
The sections with Dano, whose impression of Wilson is amazingly dead-on, I found a bit more interesting overall, I have to say. The scenes that portray Wilson’s studio creation of the unusual aural textures for the album Pet Sounds, with the studio musicians patiently following his eccentric yet brilliant instructions, are just fascinating. The tensions that arise within the Beach Boys around this new and unfamiliar style, from band mate and cousin Mike Love, played by Jake Abel, and especially from Wilson’s abusive father Murry (an incredible performance by Bill Camp), perfectly conveys the plight of an artist who risks swimming against the current. Meanwhile, Pohlad shows us Wilson’s gradual mental collapse through ingenious sequences of sound and image fragmentation.
John Cusack has the thankless task of playing the artist in his later life as a confused and frightened pawn. Fortunately, he underplays it so that we can identify and sympathize. Giamatti dives into his villainous role as the abusive shrink with gusto. Elizabeth Banks ends up with the point of view role here—there’s not much depth to the part, but she succeeds in conveying the gradual dawning of Melinda’s awareness of the true situation, and the resolve needed to fight it.
The film leaves gaps in information—Wilson’s deplorable pattern of behavior in the 70s, for instance, or how Gene Landy got control of him in the first place—but that’s a good thing, really. This is a drama, not a documentary. Love and Mercy shows the flawed human heart of a musical genius, and thereby brings us closer to the real source of his inspiration.