“Lonely scared frightened”
The best part of a Rock and Roll Music History class that I took in college was learning just how influential The Beach Boys were to music at large. I knew the songs and enjoyed them, but how could surfer pop be held in the same regard as The Beatles? It didn’t make sense. But then we dove into the intricacies of the music’s construction and Brian Wilson‘s insane ideas in the studio. We listened to Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds, and beyond to catch where one band borrowed from the other and where fresh innovation blew the previous albums away. To Regular Joe on the street “Good Vibrations” was yet another fun rendition of a successful radio-friendly formula. In reality it was so much more.
In this regard alone a Brian Wilson biopic could be seen as a necessity—a project worthy of cast, crew, and audience time—and yet every attempt to launch one had stalled. We’re talking as far back as 1988 when the musician was working on his first self-titled solo album, before the fiasco of his being under the legal guardianship of a whacked-out psychotherapist named Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) arose. You read that correctly. The legend behind “God Only Knows” and many more became so lost inside his degenerative mind that his well being was put in the hands of a stranger and it very nearly killed him. Love & Mercy shows us the power of genius to both build up and take down in equal measure.
The cinematic influences are obvious from director Bill Pohlad using A Beautiful Mind as a template to show the psychology of a man whether viewers understand the complexity of his work or not and screenwriter Oren Moverman who scribed a wild biopic once before in Bob Dylan curio I’m Not There. We get a bit of both as we watch genius pull 1960s Wilson (Paul Dano) into the depths of insecurity while on break from touring to arrange and record the music that became Pet Sounds and the horror of 1980s Wilson (John Cusack) lost in an over-medicated stupor with domineering babysitter in tow. And while you’d initially think it amazing he could fall so far, it all makes sense upon hearing about his tumultuous family life.
Most of this history is described by Cusack in a faucet stream of personal facts to new love interest Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) after the fact, but we also learn how deep those scars go when gazing upon Dano simultaneously needing his father’s (Bill Camp) advice and fearing it. He and two brothers (Kenny Wormald‘s Dennis and Brett Davern‘s Carl) were physically abused and mentally tormented for years, the trio finally standing strong by firing their dad as manager—an act he throws in their faces whenever he’s onscreen. What they became was indelibly linked to that torture, though, Wilson even admitting to Melinda that he pushed him to be great. So it’s no surprise he’d find another dictatorial figure to rule him in middle age too.
There are many of great things happening cinematically throughout Love & Mercy that shouldn’t be overlooked by its memorable ensemble of authentic portrayals. Pohlad and crew have created an impeccable aesthetic with period costumes and a gritty, over-exposed filter to show montages of The Beach Boys on photo shoots, etc. A vintage quality is lent to not only the opening credits sequence, but also many during the course of the main plot too. The film may be about Wilson’s mental struggle, but it also spends ample time on his craft. We watch him record dog barks and odd instruments, falling in love with his pianist’s mistake enough to rewrite the composition with it added in. He was a force and his musicians adored him. Everyone adored him.
And this is what makes his life so tragic. The 60s were obviously a trying era thanks to music and voices in his head spilling onto the page—his brothers loved it, but cousin and co-band member Mike Love (Jake Abel) did not. Wilson is shown as a lit fuse about to blow with drugs introduced and loneliness a symptom of working. We understand how he could spend years in bed away from his wife and daughters and why his family would place him into the waiting arms of a man like Landy. To watch Giamatti’s affable façade shatter and expose the hot-tempered lunatic beneath is to see a monster like only Wilson’s mind could imagine take physical form. And he’s utterly helpless to escape.
The story can get conveniently cyclical as a result of the back and forth thematic, but it’s not like the facts are fabricated to force it so. Wilson (who had little input) and Melinda (who did help get details correct) both admit the film is an accurate depiction of what happened. Brian was literally saved by the women in his life (Erin Darke‘s ex-wife Marilyn in the 60s and Melinda in the 80s) so to gloss over it would be wrong. He was helpless in the face of mounting fame during the former period and in the latter trapped in the fear his cloudy haze of an existence provided. It’s a sad state of affairs considering the art and influence that remain relevant decades later.
Giamatti is intense—the villain we love to hate despite Wilson being the real antagonist—and Banks a revelation in a dramatic role exposing her range beyond comedy. Cusack has made some poor decisions of late and they did taint my thought process going in, but he knocks this role out of the park. He’s innocent, vulnerable, and a ball of uncontrollable emotion when left beaten after one of Landy’s outbursts. No matter how effective he is at later-years Wilson, though, Dano possesses Brian’s indescribable spark of genius himself. He has the mannerisms down, the vocal patterns, and sweet smile of talent way ahead of his time. To see him is to see Wilson: all the joy built from a pain that often proved too much to bear.
 Paul Dano in LOVE & MERCY. Photo credit: Francois Duhamel
 Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack in LOVE & MERCY. Photo credit: Francois Duhamel
 Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in LOVE & MERCY. Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel