“Love & Mercy” is a biopic about the life of Brian Wilson, singer of the Beach Boys and acclaimed composer. The movie is told in two intertwining parts; Paul Dano plays Brian when he was younger, showing his rise to fame, his troubles with his band mates and his father, the creation of the ground-breaking “Pet Sounds” and later, the disastrous “Smile” sessions which led to his mental collapse.
The true achievement of Love & Mercy is the way it continually finds cinematic counterparts to the experience of listening to Wilson’s best work. In that sense, it is as much a tribute to the act of listening to the artist’s music as it is to the creation of that music. Indeed, this is one of the few films to ever make the act of hearing so vividly and gloriously cinematic, particularly when that act consists of a woman hearing a lonely, sad, frightened man’s plaintive cries for help and responds with compassion.
Covering two major periods in Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy has Wilson portrayed by two separate actors. The first actor, Paul Dano, portrays the younger Wilson at the top of his musical success. The Beach Boys have been cranking out hits but Wilson thinks they need a new sound, and his mind just isn’t producing the catchy pop songs it once did. In this decade we see the roots of his mental illness, which is wrongly deemed as paranoid schizophrenia by doctors, but later found out to be manic-depression with a slight schizoaffective disorder in the form of auditory hallucinations. The illness is handled with care and seriousness, never making it more or less serious than it probably was. We see it both internally for Wilson and externally in how others see him coping with it. Dano delivers a powerfully convincing and heartbreaking performance as we see him fall further and further down the rabbit-hole. Dano is consistently one of the most underrated actors in his age- group and has delivered numerous performances that demonstrate his amazing range, but he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves.
Portraying Wilson in the 80s is John Cusack, who also gives a career-best performance. His Wilson has suffered the ailments for 20 years, but he also has the added torture of having a manipulating doctor, played by Paul Giamatti, who watches over him at all hours of the day. Giamatti delivers a truly cruel and maniacal performance, making us absolutely hate him in a matter of minutes. Elizabeth Banks is wonderfully tender and passionate in her role, and there are times when she simply just looks at Wilson and it really feels like she loves him. It is a credit to Cusack and Banks’ chemistry to pull this sort of look off, and even though it seems like an odd pairing, it works out extremely well.
My main gripe with the film however are that there seems to be a sort of clash in tone between the two segments, with the 60’s being more unfocused and experimental in filmmaking choices liked editing and camera work, and later sequences with Cusack being more straightforward drama. Both parts work well on their own, but going back and forth can be a bit jarring (there is a scene referencing a famous Kubrick film that tries to tie both time lines together, thought was a bit unnecessary and self-aware). Still, I think both actors are suited for their parts, which is why I’m glad they didn’t have Paul Dano in old age makeup.
I had no idea on what I was getting into and was more than pleasantly surprised. Love & Mercy highlights an important issue with fantastic performances and a compelling story that will make you realize that not everything was fun in the sun for the band, resulting in a hidden gem that could surely resonate come awards season.
Love & Mercy gets an 8.0/10.