Love & Mercy tells the story of two Brian Wilsons (the heart and soul of the Beach Boys): 1960s Brian, portrayed by Paul Dano, at the height of his creative genius, working doggedly on a game-changing album that no one else believes in while fighting the ugly spectre of an abusive father, and 1980s Brian, portrayed by John Cusack, a broken shell of a man under the care of and heavily medicated by a shady, domineering psychiatrist.
Both Brians are sad to watch on-screen. No matter how much or how little you know about Brian Wilson’s life going in, you do know the Beach Boys, and you understand pretty quickly that the Beach Boys were nothing without him. The man was so talented that he took a harmonizing boy band in matching shirts and pushed them toward musical complexity to rival (and inspire) The Beatles. And he did it all while in the throes of a nervous breakdown.
The recording sessions in the film were some of my favourite. Sean has a nice little vinyl collection and of course Pet Sounds has always been part of it – Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the top 500 albums OF ALL TIME rates Pet Sounds at #2, only being eclipsed by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album The Beatles made in response to their hearing and adoring Pet Sounds. So it was really neat to see and hear the hard work and the many layers and the sheer creativity that went into producing a sound that had never been heard before. And even if you don’t know the album, I guarantee you’ve known some of these songs for nearly your whole life. They’re part of our cultural lexicon. And now you get to peek behind the curtain thanks to scenes that were mostly improvised with real studio musicians and shot in a documentary style with 16mm handheld cameras.
This is not a traditional biopic. It depicts two very specific times in Brian Wilson’s life, and this parallel narrative is very effective, contrasting the height of his career with his crashing mental and emotional downfall. We see him change from vitality to despondency, and to heighten that disparity, director Bill Pohlad kept actors Cusack and Dano separate so that they would each develop their own organic understanding of Wilson in their respective time periods. In the second portion, the John Cusack years, Paul Giamatti plays Dr. Landy, the evil psychiatrist while Elizabeth Banks appears as a love interest. These two are of course at odds with each other and the battle over Brian Wilson, when Wilson is too traumatized and petrified to fight for himself, or to even recognize the need for it.
Tonnes of original Beach Boys recordings are featured throughout the movie, lots flawlessly mixed in with Paul Dano’s own voice. And I’m giving props to composer Atticus Ross who had a mountain of a task to compose a score that would flow in and out of all of these iconic songs, and yet he didn’t just do a competent job, he elevated things, drawing inspiration from such varied sources as The Beatles’ Revolution 9 to Jay-Z’s The Grey Album and it sounds exciting and alive and masterful.
There are significant gaps in this film, which is narrow in its scope, but it is an otherwise mournfully accurate account. Lots of the characters and events feel larger than life but if anything, Wilson felt that perhaps some were treated “too fairly” and after all he’s been through, you can understand where that’s coming from. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, from the recreation of several Beach Boys album covers to Elizabeth Banks’ impressive 80s garb, and as much as I can tell you so, you really just have to see it yourself.