This unpredictable biopic chronicles the life and career of Brian Wilson, the troubled musical genius and beating heart of superlative ‘60s rock band The Beach Boys. It jumps between the heyday of the band – in which Wilson largely helped create their most popular and pioneering songs – and decades later when he’s under 24-hour watch of a shady therapist as a result of his psychosis.
Love & Mercy has all the ingredients of a generic, been-there-done-that musical biopic. Everything from the band creating the iconic music that we all know so well now to the inevitable discord between members. But it’s in the way that the film is structured and in the deliberately unwieldly, unpredictable way it’s directed by Bill Pohlad (his first since 1990’s Old Explorers) that makes it stand out from that most crowded of crowds.
It’s a film that plays to audiences who love music for the beautiful, sad, uplifting, haunting and over-whelming art form that it can be and plays out in a lyrical, poetic fashion that exudes an at once unnerving and crisp atmosphere throughout. The two eras between which the film is split down in the middle are effortlessly captured, from the clothes to the cars to even the way people talk, and paints a convincing portrait of how the former time period eventually became the latter through cultural shifts and attitudes.
The idea of having two very distinct actors like Dano and Cusack play Wilson at different points in his life seemed a bit of a risk, not least because the two look absolutely nothing alike, but they both absolutely nail the mannerism of the real-life man. Dano is fantastically upbeat and enthusiastic in the younger days, full of as much zest for life and music as he is ideas for how to create not just new songs but new techniques with which they can be arranged; it’s in this segment that the film gracefully explores that age-old idea of the genius not being appreciated or understood in his time as he hears fragments of notes swirling around his head and spends hours upon hours trying to realise them in the studio, much to the annoyance of almost everyone around him who just want to get on and do just more of the same.
Cusack has rarely been better as the older Brian and he has arguably the more difficult task of the two actors because he has to convey the weight of his mental illness that’s built up throughout the years without proper care (or, as the title suggests, love and mercy). As I said, there’s a disparity in looks between the two actors but they’re absolutely two halves of the one whole and are as convincing in the small details – end credits footage of the real Wilson shows just how spot-on the duo represent them in their respective performances – as they are in the big emotions.
Those two might share the spotlight for most of it but there’s also fantastic work from the supporting cast, including Elizabeth Banks as spirited Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, who becomes a rock onto which the older Brian can hold for support, much to the chagrin of his unscrupulous therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, played with brilliant false pleasantry and underlying calculating coldness by Paul Giamatti. Not to give too much away but Banks becomes somewhat of the crusading hero of the piece as she desperately tries to free her beloved Brian from the clutches of a man who’s clearly only after his money and despicably using his mental illness as a means to hold the power.
You’d think that the two distinct time periods, both in terms of the actor playing the central figure and the individual plot strands, would sit completely at odds with one another but it’s quite the contrary. It’s a testament to the director that the film flows together as well as it does and that it manages to spin something new out of the well-worn musical biopic formula, one that should appeal as much to fans as those who only may have heard the frankly unavoidable songs in passing throughout the years. The film builds a complex portrait of a legacy, full of layered emotion, tenderness and a genuine reverence for the music and musician that it chronicles.