Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner (as Michael Alan Lerner)
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Love & Mercy is the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental anxieties and his psychotic decline during his most creative period creating his masterpiece “Pet Sounds” and another project that wouldn’t see light of day to its full potential until the year 2004. The movie is set during his rise to fame in the 1960’s and the escape from his controlling therapist Dr. Eugene Landy during the 1980’s.
I always had an admiration for the “Hits” of The Beach Boys growing up but admittedly I was more of a Beatles fan and never really appreciated the album “Pet Sounds” as a complete entity. The Beach Boys up to the release of Rubber Soul by The Beatles where classed as a typical American surfing pretty boy group that sang about Surfing and California Girls and at one stage managed by the Wilson brothers Father who had already pigeonholed them into the genre for a safe bet and guaranteed income for the band. That all changed at least for Brian Wilson who was blown away by Rubber Soul and inspired him to create a musical collage that each song would be linked in some fashion to the next song.
It is no secret that Wilson had physical symptoms of depression after years of physical and mental abuse from his father and disapproval of his musical direction from fellow band mate and cousin Mike Love, Paul Dano portrays Brian Wilson in the 1960’s and resembles exudes the look of young Wilson perfectly. He learned how to play piano for the role and in some keys scenes in the development of “God Only Knows”, and sings much of the music in the film perfectly.
Dano has the lion share of this period of Wilson’s life but playing the 1980’s version is John Cusack who looks less like Brian Wilson but in my opinion portrays an even more complex version of him battling his demons and expressing how difficult and challenging it is for Wilson to escape his mental anguish and rebuild his life with future wife Melinda Ledbetter portrayed by Elizabeth Banks.
Banks to be fair departs her more well known comedic film roles, and as Melinda Ledbetter, shows her strength and respect for the man she loves through actions and subtle expressions. Ledbetter is the key to Wilson’s sanity and hope and without her strength I’m not sure Brian Wilson would have saw out the 1980’s if this movie is anything to go by. Their first meeting is a rather strange and awkward one in Wilson wanting to buy a car from her showroom. I don’t think I’ve seen Cusack as intense in a role…well ever.
Playing Dr Eugene Landy is the brilliant Paul Giamatti who strangely has almost a cartoon like role in the film as Wilson’s therapist. He really portrays the role almost as a pantomime villain but by all accounts and from what I have read was a close portrayal of a manipulative, violent and controlling person over Wilson’s life. Giamatti really steals all of his scenes and creates an intensity within the storyline.
I felt Director Bill Pohlad did well to capture both periods of Wilson’s life from two different actors without it becoming unbelievable or disjointed. I have seen this done before and failed in a movie called “The Best of Me (2014) in no matter how good a storyline is or how good the direction is, if you miscast the story will fail. Don’t get me wrong for the first 5 minutes of screen time in the 1980’s I was concerned with the casting of Cusack but his performance carried the movie in this period thankfully. Pohlad also let the audience into the studio to see some of the classics being constructed by Wilson and surprisingly to me a bunch of session musicians who albeit where the best at what they do. Interesting as well was showing some of the petty squabbles between Wilson and his cousin Love and Love’s disapproval of some of Brian’s musical choices.
In Summary, If I was to nitpick was the Director not covering the 1970’s in which I have read since watching this movie where as a tumultuous period in which he spent 3 years in his bed suffering depression and drug addiction. Perhaps Pohlad didn’t want to indulge too much in this period for theme and pacing issues (who knows) nevertheless “Love & Mercy” is a fascinating insight into one of the brilliant minds of the 20th Century and is written beautifully with some top class acting on board. If you are a fan of The Beach Boys you will be reminded of the struggles of Brian Wilson, but if you are a casual fan like me you will enjoy, be enlightened and become a slightly more of a fan of the album “Pet Sounds” Highly Recommend.