Even if you weren’t a child of the ‘60s, The Beach Boys (made up of the Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine) and their music are not strangers to pop culture and to the music industry. They were one of the original boy bands, and in their heyday, they were on top of the music charts throughout the ‘60s and very early ‘70s. And while they each added their own particular energy to the group, it’s well-known that group member Brian Wilson was largely the source behind their music. Love & Mercy gives us a heartbreaking snapshot of Wilson’s life in the two most important and prominent decades of his life with emotion, respect, and care.
Brian Wilson (the younger played by Paul Dano, the older by John Cusack) is a musical genius. He has a way of getting the arrangements just right so that he could get the exact sound that he’s looking for. As part of The Beach Boys (Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Graham Rogers, and Brett Davern), Brian suffered from a bit of stage fright and anxiety. He becomes involved in psychedelic drugs and LSD, some of these things actually helping him to pen some of The Beach Boys’ most famous and popular hits. This ultimately takes a toll on his mental health, as he begins to hallucinate and hear voices in his head, while also dealing with the traumatic effects of having been beaten as child by his very controlling and always disappointed father (Bill Camp).
The film takes place in two different timelines, between the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Transitioning between the two decades proves something very natural for first-time feature film director Bill Pohlad. In the ‘80s, Brian is in the custody of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an extreme therapist who has taken control over Brian’s entire life, including the intake of his prescription drugs after improperly diagnosing Brian with paranoid schizophrenia forcing him to produce new music. Brian finds solace in car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who becomes increasingly concerned for Brian’s safety and care under Dr. Landy.
The film takes care to not let the legacy of Brian Wilson’s music career overshadow that of his own personal struggles and life. It’s almost an afterthought, highlighted only when it needs to be. Throughout the film, Pohlad highlights Brian’s humanity and personal suffering without weighing down the story by his fame. Rather, he uses them as an example of the price Brian’s paid and the problems that arise because of his eventual abuse of drugs and mental health deterioration.
John Cusack hasn’t been this good in years. He finally has a meaty role and he really digs into it, encompassing Brian’s vulnerability, fear, and love for Melinda. Elizabeth Banks portrays Melinda as a tender and concerned woman who is swept into Brian’s world without warning and is forced to come face to face with Brian’s issues and takes care to look out for him in the face of Landy’s threatening presence. We see Brian through her eyes, as though we’re being introduced to him for the first time. She and Cusack have a quiet chemistry and their back and forth with each other is full of fondness.
Paul Dano is superb as the younger Brian Wilson. He’s the guy with the most to lose. Dano projects superior musical ability into his portrayal, sometime looking like a little boy lost and other times a man possessed by the need to express his musical talent in unorthodox ways. Paul Giamatti is once again playing the proverbial bad guy, and he gives it everything he’s got. The brutality, sheer cruelty behind his words and actions are selfish, greedy, and manipulative and one quickly comes to hate him with minutes of meeting him. The rest of the cast, notably Jake Abel as Mike Love, provide excellent portrayals in their supporting roles.
Ultimately, Love & Mercy is not only a film for anyone who grew up listening to The Beach Boys. The fact that Pohlad doesn’t focus primarily on the musical group makes it a story anyone could watch unfold, and not only for nostalgic reasons. The story taking place in two timelines could have brought down the film, but it is perhaps one of its greatest strengths and it flows so easily between one and the other. Pohlad wants us to understand Brian, and in order to do that, he gives us the most important information and a very intimate look, without judgment, at Brian Wilson, the person. The story is stripped of theatrics and feels very raw, creating a biopic that is genuine and will ring true to any viewer.