Movie Review: “Love & Mercy”

There have been several biographic films about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys over the years, and all of them up to this point have been mediocre at best. It all seemed to start with material taken from The Beach Boys and the California Myth or other books that show Brian as the tragic artist always trying to get the approval of his father, or the musical savant of a surf music group that never could “defeat” The Beatles. The movie Love & Mercy, doesn’t really concentrate on the band, but does bring Brian’s struggles to life.

The film bounces between the 1960s (Brian played by Paul Dano) and 1980s (Brian played by John Cusack.) The 1960s period is dead on accurate as Dano captures the catatonic states and music playing in Brian’s head, as he composes much of Pet Sounds. The studio scenes are very familiar sounding to Beach Boys fans who listened to the bonus tracks and rehearsals of the The Pet Sounds Sessions. The other band members are pretty nondescript, with the exception of Mike Love (Jake Abel) being the annoying critic who still wants more surf music. And Brian’s father, Murray Wilson is like a specter that looms over his decent into commercial failure and despair. Dano does a great job here and actually looks the part.

The 1980’s period has most of the movie’s conflict with Cuscak’s Wilson being frequently over-medicated by his psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti.) When the beautiful Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) finds him car shopping in her Cadillac dealership, the story shifts to saving Brian from his manipulative doctor. Both parts of the movie work seamlessly together, but the latter period has most of the best acting in the movie. Its got Cusack capturing the subtle nuances of the adult Wilson perfectly, to the point where the lack of physical resemblance with the real Wilson almost isn’t an issue. In addition, both Banks and Giamattis performances keep the film from losing momentum.

The excellent sound editing here is also a huge part of this movie, as it brings the cacophony of voices in Brian’s head to life as well as the genesis of “God Only Knows.” If you want to nitpick, they gloss over Marilyn Rovell (Brian’s first wife) and the other Wilson brothers. They also ignore the 1970’s where Brian ballooned in weight, grew a beard and how Dr. Landy initially saved his life (before he turned into the villain.) Overall, an excellent film that is a must-see for Beach Boys fans and even the non-fans will enjoy this.

For more real life vs. movie comparisons Slate has a good article on this.