Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks
The history of rock and roll is full of weird and tragic stories and one of the weirdest, surely, is the story of Brian Wilson. From the genius at the heart of one of the most successful and enduring bands of the '60s, to a recluse rumored to have spent years in bed self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness, to someone incorrectly diagnosed and placed under the care and control of doctor/svengali eventually leading to a years long conservatorship battle, Wilson's life has so many twists and turns, ups and downs, that it would be difficult to fit it all in any one movie. Bill Pohland's Love & Mercy, written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, doesn't attempt to tell the whole story, choosing to focus instead on the time before and after the hermitage period, each of which is fascinating in its own way even if the two halves of the film don't always work so well together.
Love & Mercy alternates between the mid-60s, with Wilson portrayed by Paul Dano, and the mid-80s, with Wilson portrayed by John Cusack. The two actors don't look anything alike, and only Dano manages to bear a resemblance to Wilson, but that's really only a problem if you want to get hung up on the film's most superficial level. It might sound jarring to keep transitioning between Dano and Cusack playing the same man, but in the context of the story it almost feels like they're playing different men with a shared origin. Dano plays the man before the long descent into drugs and mental illness, a man just starting to lose his grip on reality but still mostly recognizable as the person he was up until that point, and Cusack plays the man just coming to the edge of the period of darkness, a man isolated and over-medicated, moving through the world as if through a thick fog separating him from everyone and everything else in it.
Dano's portion of the film primarily concerns the period of time around the making of "Pet Sounds," during which Wilson opts to cease touring with The Beach Boys after having a massive panic attack on a plane, promising that while the rest of the band is in Japan he'll be hard at work in the studio, working on songs for their next album. While Wilson finds great joy in making the album, using everything at his disposal to create the sound he's looking for with the hope that he can make music that exists at the next level, others are less enthusiastic. His father, Murry (Bill Camp), brimming with resentment over having been pushed out of his managerial role with the band, tells him that he needs to get back to the sound that made the band successful in the first place and later tries to make him and his brothers jealous by showing up at a recording session with a demo of his new band. Bandmate Mike Love (Jake Abel) doesn't care for what Wilson has done either, disliking the experimental direction of the music and resentfully pointing out to Wilson that he's essentially made an album by himself, with the rest of the band serving only as vocals.
As depicted in the film, this period of Wilson's life is both a creative peak and the beginning of his greatest personal suffering as he begins to experience auditory hallucinations and paranoia and sink deeper into drug abuse. The other half of the film depicts a period of Wilson's life that seems like a sort of purgatory, with Wilson (Cusack) returning to the world but kept separate and apart from it by Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychologist who exerts complete control over Wilson's life. When Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in her car dealership, Landy and his people are not far behind and, as Melinda soon discovers, will be constantly hovering around as she and Wilson begin a tentative courtship. The more time she spends with Wilson, the more disturbed Melinda becomes about Landy's treatment of him and about Landy's own state of mind, and the more determined she becomes to pull Wilson out from under Landy's thumb.
Of the two, the Dano half is the stronger part of Love & Mercy's story, built around a sensitive and nuanced performance by Dano that portrays Wilson as a wounded artist who longs for the approval of a father who can only ever find fault in him. To that end, he's an exacting perfectionist who pushes the musicians around him to achieve the precise sounds that exist in his head, frustrating some but exhilarating others as he works to make his ambition a reality. The film's other half, though compelling in its own way, is weaker in part because it plays less like Wilson's story and more like a love letter to Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson's second wife and current manager. Thanks to Banks' subtle but quietly powerful performance this works to a degree, but the shift in focus is noticeable as the film moves back and forth between its two threads and as a consequence the Wilson of one half is a much more distinct character than the Wilson of the other half. That said, even though I don't think the two halves are quite equal to each other, Love & Mercy makes up for it by forgoing the most predictable of biopic conventions and bringing a freshness to the genre.