There is a difference between growing up with artists and discovering artists that existed before you were born, at least for me anyway. There is a level of remove because they were not experienced in a present tense. As I was born in 1981, I missed out on all of the great classic artists (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix) in this manner. I have since discovered and enjoyed many of them, and a lot of them have stories surrounding them that are as fascinating as their musical output. The story of The Beach Boys is one that I know a little bit about, but is mostly murky to me, especially what happened to Brian Wilson. I remember seeing Summer Dreams, a made-for-TV movie chronicling their story back in the early 90s and stories about Wilson’s mental deterioration, and of course the song by Barenaked Ladies but not really knowing much about Brian Wilson’s overall story. Love & Mercy focuses on Brian Wilson, splitting time between the 60s, when Brian Wilson embarks on making Pet Sounds, and 80s where Brian is heavily medicated and under the 24-hour supervisory care of Dr. Eugene Landy.
Paul Dano portrays the younger Brian Wilson, while John Cusack portrays the older version of Brian. The film bounces back and forth between the two times, showing the stress that Dano’s Brian is under to create groundbreaking music, while Cusack’s Brian begins a tentative romance with a car dealer, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Melinda’s relationship grows with Brian, but is under constant watch by Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti), and she soon begins to suspect that Landy’s control over Wilson is too much and is harmful to Brian. Back in the 60s, as Brian begins to experiment more and more with the sounds of the band, and drugs, it creates tension in the band, most noticeably with Mike Love (Jake Abel).
The construct of the film is interesting. Biopics generally fall into two categories, either telling the subjects entire life story, or focusing on a particular moment or period in their life that exemplifies the person. Love & Mercy is closest to the latter, but tells the story of two prolonged periods of Brian’s life, as the Cusack portion extends into the 90s (though that’s not made blatantly obvious). Also, it’s tough enough to cast one person as someone in a biopic, finding two people to portray the same person is even harder. Unfortunately, I felt like Paul Dano far overshadows John Cusack’s performance. Perhaps that’s because he has the more vibrant role of the two, as Cusack is stuck with the unenviable task of trying to act like he’s in a drug-induced stupor in some scenes. But too often it felt like Cusack was playing at being Brian Wilson or just acting as John Cusack, kind of like how Nicholas Cage sometimes just plays himself. It comes and goes. Dano, who is a good actor I’ve never been a huge fan of, does a terrific job here, showing Brian’s genius in the sound studio and in the smaller moments when bad things are beginning to creep in around him. Elizabeth Banks really gets to show off how capable she is as an actress here as well, making you wish she was in more leading roles. Not that some of her other roles have been bad (they haven’t), but this is the best thing I’ve seen from her in a while. Giamatti gives a great performances as well, making the shady Dr. Landy loathsome; it’s a one-note role, but he plays that one note perfectly.
There are the typical biopic trappings and pitfalls here. Some dialogue is little too on the nose, like a scene where a studio musician tells Brian how great his musical talent is. Another scene involves the band having a “band meeting” in the pool. Brian is floating in the deep end while the rest of the band is in the shallow end of the pool. Brian invites them out to him to talk, but they reply, “We can’t stand in the deep end, Brian. We’re too shallow for the deep end.” That’s some heavy-handed dialogue that if they hadn’t included, the metaphor of Brian swimming in the deep end while the rest of the band is in the shallow end would work much better. Brian’s difficult relationship with his father, Murray (Bill Camp), is also explored in typical biopic fashion.
Fortunately, the film excels with the musical aspects of the story. The creative process behind Wilson crafting Pet Sounds is truly amazing. To watch him at work in the studio really does show off the genius of Brian Wilson. And despite the films attempt to make Mike Love a villain on par with Landry or Brian’s father, there is a great scene where Brian and Mike collaborate on what will eventually become “Good Vibrations.” I like The Beach Boys, but I’m not a massive fan of theirs, but even I felt a surge of energy from hearing these legendary songs in their infancy.
Another thing the film gets mostly right is the creeping mental health issues coming Brian’s way. The one thing I think they drop the ball on slightly is that while his drug use is acknowledged and explored, I think it is underplayed in the role it played in contributing to his mental deterioration, placing a scene where Brian begins to hear things in his earphones before he takes LSD, something that led to his auditory hallucinations that persist to this day. It seems to downplay the drugs and attribute most of it to the pressure Brian puts on himself to make a truly great record because of what he hears The Beatles or Phil Spector or other contemporaries putting out. Brian seems to hear music everywhere, like he is touched with this gift, but it ends up being something he indulges too much and it begins to become unwieldy. On top of this, the drugs seem to open doors for him in his mind that he can’t entirely shut. A scene at the dinner table after “Good Vibrations” has been released shows how Brian’s mind hears music in everything, but it quickly becomes a cacophony of noise that drives him mad.
Love & Mercy has three strong lead performances in Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti, and one average performance from John Cusack. While it can’t help falling into some of the stereotypical biopic clichés about brilliant artists, and some of it reminded me of what was parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it really nails the music and the creation of the music, and providing insight into one of the more unique stories in history of rock music as Brian was under the Svengali-like control of Landry.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars