The Beach Boys were a cultural and worldwide phenomenon and their music truly did define a generation. The man behind their critical success was a young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano), a man who envisioned all the Beach Boys songs in his head and created all the accompanying music and lyrics for nearly every song. He wasn’t all their in the head, but he had a gift that no one else had. In his later years, Brian (John Cusack) grew more sick and Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) took over caring for him. However, Dr. Landy’s over-medication and manipulation was caught by Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a woman whom Brian met and fell hard for.
Love & Mercy is an exceptional look at the formative years of Brian Wilson’s life as a member of, songwriter of, and composer of the Beach Boys. Their music certainly defined a generation and much of that credit goes to Wilson, who’s unorthodox writing and composing methods created some of the most unique music of the time. Not only do we get to see how the music affects Wilson, but we also get to see all he went through mentally and how the people around him responded. Better yet, the timeless music of the Beach Boys plays throughout the film and individual songs help set the tone.
Paul Dano is no stranger to playing obscured and disturbed people, so portraying a younger Wilson was definitely in his wheelhouse. However, Wilson wasn’t as much disturbed as he was misunderstood. Dano’s mind and body are completely controlled by the music and the sounds that he hears in his head and his reactions to them are remarkable. As a character and an actor, he seems profoundly moved by the music and orchestrating new sounds, only adding to the authenticity that he brings to the role. There’s no doubt that this is one of Dano’s most subtle and best roles.
John Cusack playing the older Wilson isn’t too far off from how Dano plays him, but Cusack really sells the look. By that, I mean that he looks tired and drugged during most of his performance and the little nuances he brings really emphasize the drastic effect that the over-medicating has had on him. Cusack lets people walk all over him and all he can do about it is stare off into the distance and speak on behalf of Giamatti. The tenderness that Cusack displays with Banks is tremendous and hints at the man he once was.
Paul Giamatti isn’t in the film long enough to completely take over your attention, but his eccentric and frightening presence is more than enough to leave you singing his praises. He’s truly manipulative of everyone in the film (including the audience too) and his menacing presence is always felt whenever Cusack is on-screen. On the opposite end is Elizabeth Banks, who sheds her comedic skin and settles into a role that demands her to concerned and a bit stunned. Her emotions bleed through the screen and affect the way you see the film and it’s an unreal experience seeing her soar this high. She shows her strength when she has to, but is most often excelling with adapting to Cusack and the troubles that he’s dealing with.
Director Bill Pohland has 24 producing credits to his now two directing credits, but that has no bearing on his quality directing after seeing this film. Switching between a home video styled camera for the recordings of the early Beach Boys records and a regular one for anytime we’re with Wilson is a choice that works especially well given the context of the footage. The clarity comes in when we see confusion arrive in Brian. Pohland also has a grand time setting up shots of the Beach Boys recording and the process by which Wilson would orchestrate his music. The music which Pohland uses extremely well to follow the characters and their emotions.
Love & Mercy stands out because of its combined acting power, but ultimately succeeds due to the care that went into creating this film. Every scene serves a purpose and gets us closer to figuring out who Brian Wilson really is. The split portrayals emphasize extremely important parts of his life and there’s never any holding back with the way we see Wilson act. The film is an incredibly honest and moving tribute to a man who truly is a visionary. Watching his story unfold as well as it did was an amazing experience that I am sure I will feel again upon repeated viewings.
Love & Mercy Trailer