There are many Beach Boys fans out there and I suspect that these days there are even more Brian Wilson fans. So a biopic like Love and Mercy (2014) seems a no-brainer. Thankfully though, this film for the most part eschews the tired structure and beats of the music biopic.
There is no attempt to cover Wilson’s life from cradle to grave. Instead the film flits back and forth between two periods of Wilson’s life. In one, Wilson is played by Paul Dano, as he progresses from teen surf-pop hearthrob, to “Pet Sounds”/”Good Vibrations” sheer musical genius, to man struggling with a multitude of demons. In the second part of the film Wilson, this time played by John Cusack, is under the hold of rogue psychiatrist Eugene Landy (played with cartoon villain glee by Paul Giamattti) and finds hope through Melinda Ledbetter played by Elizabeth Banks. The narrative is a little patchy and occasionally it pitches into the other story thread just as you were getting really engrossed by the first. Despite those quibbles though, it is such a relief that the story is told with an attempt to tell something different to the biopic norm and to really get deep into the details of two parts of Wilson’s life. The film also ends on a totally pitch perfect note. As the credits roll, so does a live performance of Wilson singing the song that the film takes its name from. Not his most famous track, but the simple beauty of it pierces through and reaffirms that all the horrible things that took place in the film, all the exploitation of a mentally ill man, happened to a real person. A really beautiful person with really beautiful art inside of him.
So much of the attention that Love and Mercy has attracted has focused on Paul Dano and John Cusack. With good reason as well, they are both excellent. It is Dano who grabs you first. His paunch and haircut are the perfect mimic of Wilson circa “Pet Sounds”. Dano is such an incredible actor that he immediately recalls Wilson, but thankfully does not simply lazily impersonate him, instead building the aura surrounding the musical genius, through his wild and utterly brilliant work in the studio. Conversely, Cusack as Wilson jars initially. Partly it’s because we have already seen Dano, so the initial reaction is a simple ‘that dude looks nothing like Brian Wilson’. But if anything, Cusack’s performance is even better than Dano’s. Without overplaying it or resorting to histrionics, Cusack conveys a broken man. One ravaged by mental illness who is desperate for a way out and sees it in Melinda. One who has creative brilliance and heart, but it is buried under decades of abuse. As good as both of those men are, for me this is Elizabeth Banks film. She is an utter star in it, taking what could have been a side character and turning her into the powerhouse heart of the film. An emotional, strong and resilient woman who literally saves the life of one of the greatest musicians of our time.
Verdict: Anchored by three strong performances from Dano, Cusack and the incredible Banks, Love and Mercy is well worth your time, especially as it does away with at least some of the formula you may expect. An affinity with the music of Wilson or the Beach Boys may help to engage you, but it is certainly not a prerequisite. Stubby of Reschs