By Ed Symkus
It’s not till a few minutes after the music starts playing, till you’ve heard snippets of the poppy “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun Fun Fun” and the soulful “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Surfer Girl,” that the words flash across the screen: “Based on the Life of Brian Wilson.”
That’s not quite accurate. “Love & Mercy” isn’t your standard biopic, one that tells the story of the frontman of the Beach Boys, who also happened to be the creative genius behind their sounds. It’s a look at two periods of Wilson’s life, both of which are interwoven throughout the film.
For the segments in the early-mid-1960s, Wilson is played by Paul Dano, who shares some resemblance to the Wilson of that period. These are the exciting parts of the film, in which we see a young man brimming with musical ideas being given the opportunity to run recording sessions at Capitol Records, with the best studio musicians around, to get all of those sounds in his head onto tape.
When the film jumps to the 1980s, Wilson is played by John Cusack (who doesn’t resemble Wilson), and he’s been reduced to an empty shell of a man, having gone through a great deal of emotional distress, then put under the “care” of a psychologist named Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an egotistical, delusional man who seems to thrive only when he has other people under his strict control. At this point of the story, Brian Wilson is under the merciless, drug-fueled control of Landy, and can’t get out of it.
This is a film that regularly shifts in mood from celebratory to disturbing. There’s plenty of fun, fun, fun in the ’60s parts, but the script doesn’t flinch when dealing with turmoil in the band in those days. Brian and his brothers, Dennis and Carl, were always tight, but the tension that developed between Brian and singer Mike Love is palpable. People who know the Beach Boys story know that Brian only toured with the group in the early years. As shown in the film, a panic attack on a plane ride to a gig leads him to tell his brothers that it came from the pressure of the road, and that they don’t really need him onstage, that he would feel more comfortable producing and recording the songs in the studio – he ran the instrumental sessions with players we now know as the Wrecking Crew; then the other Beach Boys would come in to record the vocals – and they could handle the live performances without him. This idea would eventually lead Mike Love to derisively refer to the group as the Brian Wilson Band.
But there was no stopping Wilson. The Beatles had just released “Rubber Soul,” an album that impressed him so much, he vowed to make one better than it. The result, as told in the film, was “Pet Sounds,” initially a flop (Mike Love tells Brian, “Now it’s time to get back to OUR music.”), now considered a classic.
The toughest parts of the film to take in are during the’80s, when Landy was likely even telling Wilson what color socks to wear each day. But there’s also some light in those days of darkness. Wilson had plenty of money, and one day while perusing new Cadillacs in a showroom (with Landy watching closely from afar), he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who sells those big cars there. Though she has no idea who he is, and he comes across as soft-spoken, polite, fidgety, and unsure, they get to talking, and then talking some more. It’s one of those rare moments where Wilson, sitting in a car on a showroom floor with this nice, friendly woman, can relax ... until their talk is broken up, rather intrusively, by always smiling, never sincere Landy.
And so the film goes back and forth between these two important periods in Wilson’s life. It’s clear that there were already demons in his head when he was young, probably pushed along by mistreatment from his overbearing father Murray (Bill Camp) and by Brian’s difficult first marriage to Marilyn (Erin Darke). But he always found salvation in his music. Later on the only music in his life was the stuff that was forced on him or forced out of him by Landy, whose short temper is even more frightening than his fake laugh, and is portrayed by Giamatti as a true monster. His Landy is the devil, while Banks’ Melinda is an angel.
Cusack is terrific here, with a serious approach to the role that he expertly sprinkles with twinkly eyed comic highlights (but only when he’s around Melinda). Dano captures all of the vibrancy of a guy who’s so bursting with creative ideas, he has trouble keeping up with them. The only problem I had with the film is that when it was over, I still wanted to know even more.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
LOVE & MERCY
Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner; directed by Bill Pohlad
With Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Movie review: Love & Mercy’ reveals some of Brian Wilson and Beach Boys
By Ed Symkus