Love & Mercy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 5, 2015

Paul Dano in 'Love & Mercy'
Paul Dano in 'Love & Mercy'  (Source:Roadside Attractions)

Bill Poland's biopic of Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson (Played by Paul Dano and John Cusack) switches back and forth from the 1960s -- when the Beach Boys were at their peak and Wilson's mental illness was starting to affect his ability to function -- to the late 1980s / early 1990s, when a heavily medicated Wilson, in the grip of a controlling psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti), struggles to reclaim his life and establish a relationship with a beautiful woman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).

The narrative may be split, but it doesn't fracture the way Wilson's psyche does. The film takes us repeatedly into Wilson's mind and perceptions -- the sonic morass of voices and music he hears in his head, and from which he strives to coax songs; the damaged hearing that results from hard, repeated blows from his abusive father, Murry (Bill Camp); the way past and present become jarringly confused as his mental state wavers.

This is almost a tale of two Brians. There's the driven, hurt Brian, played by Dano, a young man whose creative vision fueled the Beach Boys and produced the classic album "Pet Sounds," and whose bruised sense of self is gradually disintegrating under the pressures of maintaining creative and commercial levels of success. This Brian is still strong enough to fire his manipulative and emotionally scarring father.

Then there's the older Brian, played by Cusack, who is such a bundle of overmedicated anxiety and uncertainty that he's allowed himself to be suckered and dominated by Giamatti's unscrupulous psychiatrist, a leech so brutally controlling that he has to monitor everything Wilson does, including what he says and does with Melinda.

The two periods succeed at portraying Wilson, but not in connecting who we was with who he became. Both Dano and Cusack turn in commanding, sympathetic performances, but each of them brings such an individualistic style to the role that I didn't buy them as both being the same man at different points in his life -- it's a distraction, and one of the film's major weaknesses. There's also a constant sense of something missing from he film's structure -- a lost middle chapter, some crucial point of no return that must have been passed during a long period of bedridden lethargy that we hear about and see a few moments of. The film may gloss this over, but it does give the romance between Wilson and Melinda its due, and those passages are charged with sweetness and tension.

The film also offers us a glimpse at the creative process of a man acknowledged to be a musical genius, as he works out rough early versions of now-familiar songs on the piano and does his best to explain what he's got in mind to his bandmates, which are also his brothers and cousin. (There is, of course, a de rigeur moment of illustrating Wilson's uncommon gift when a studio musician protests that what Wilson has notated in the sheet music isn't going to work; it's the sort of shorthand we've seen before, most recently in the Chadwick Boseman-starring James Brown biopic "Get On Up.")

The film's outstanding sound design and music editing bolster the rest of the production, which (a few issues aside) is strong on its own. As a psychological profile, this cautionary tale of a gifted artist bullied and exploited by a succession of forceful males (Wilson's father, his cousin Mike (Jake Abel), and eventually the creep-ball Dr. Eugene Landy) is right up there with "Amadeus" and "Shine." By including the audience in Wilson's almost-hallucinatory, sometimes painful creative throes, Poland and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner create a sense of immediacy punctuated by disorienting moments of disconnect.

"Love & Mercy" doesn't give us perfection, but it is a powerful, sensorially rich experience all the same.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.