Movie review: Love & Mercy finds harmony of a troubled genius

Paul Dano and John Cusack both play Brian Wilson in a creative musical biography that looks inside the head of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson

Love & Mercy

Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Rating: 4/5

Running time: 120 minutes

By Jay Stone


Bill Pohlad’s extraordinary Love & Mercy is a musical biography of the long-running nervous breakdown that is Brian Wilson. It is an experimental look inside the head of the musical genius — emotionally fragile, mentally disturbed, harmonically gifted — who created the surf ‘n’ summer sounds of the Beach Boys, then lifted it into a new kind of symphonic popular music.


Love & Mercy is about the noise inside Wilson’s head (the movie opens with the camera peering into his ear, portentous as David Lynch’s voyage into the twisted universe of Blue Velvet.) Wilson heard voices, but he also heard sounds, and much of Love & Mercy shows us how he tried to re-create those notes — those good vibrations — with his band.


Two actors play Wilson in the film. Paul Dano brings a kind of fragile pain to the younger Wilson, who was tormented by his abusive father and ex-manager Murry (Bill Camp), one of the great assholes of rock and roll. John Cusack plays the older Wilson, immobilized by psychiatric drugs and under the control of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a physiotherapist who took over Wilson’s life for several years and dictated everything from his diet to his work schedule (Wilson lived in a house with locks on the kitchen cabinets). Cusack looks nothing like Wilson — or Dano, for that matter — but he has the winces and tics of a man trapped in his own neurosis.


The movie isn’t a full life of Wilson. His childhood is only talked about, although in just a few short scenes Camp paints a vivid portrait of a father out to smother his son (when Wilson plays his ethereal new song God Only Knows, Murry says it sounds like a suicide note.) Likewise, we never see him during the period when he was hugely fat and bedridden, a prisoner of many emotional demons. Dr. Landy tells that story to Melinda (an excellent Elizabeth Banks), the Cadillac saleswoman who becomes Wilson’s girlfriend during the period when Landy controlled access and monitored his conversations. Wilson meets her in the car showroom, and leaves her a secret note reading, “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.”


Pohlad, a producer of brave projects (12 Years a Slave, Wild, Tree of Life) and directing only his second film, moves the external action along with some expository dialogue that serves as narrative signposts; for instance, Murry bursts into a recording studio to inform his son that he’s sold all the rights to Beach Boys songs for a paltry $750,000, or some band members complain that Wilson’s new musical direction is leaving their old successes behind.


The real drama, though, takes place inside Wilson’s head, and the centerpiece of Love & Mercy comes in the scenes showing the studio sessions for Pet Sounds, the 1966 album that was a commercial failure but is now regarded as one of the best albums of the era and certainly the band’s masterpiece. Wilson was obsessed with finding the near-mystical harmonies he heard in his head, and he used everything: not just cellos and oboes, but cowbells, barking dogs, and stray voices in the studio. At their best, the Beach Boys sounded like a heavenly choir that has been taken down to Malibu by the Four Freshmen.


This is a movie about damaged genius, and it’s told in fragments: even the famous songs are heard one track at a time, so we can understand how Wilson layered the voices and instruments. It’s a difficult story, one that might lend itself to melodrama, but Pohlad tells it with a lovely oblique understanding; there’s a great scene where Wilson goes to the grand piano that is anchored in a large sandbox in his living room, sits down and wiggles his bare feet in the sand. There he is, the man who wrote Fun Fun Fun, trying to clear away the voices that were driving him mad, and hear the music behind them.


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Love & Mercy: A musical biography of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys, that uses two actors -- Paul Dano and John Cusack -- to play him at different times. It's a look inside the head of a man who heard voices and ethereal harmonies, and it is both musically astute and heartbreaking. -- Jay Stone

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