Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy, Beach Boys, Brian WilsonGive yourself a refreshing jolt of summer and a heartfelt movie tale befitting its title in this Brian Wilson biopic (trailer). Possibly, some readers will be so post-Beach Boys that name will be meaningless, but not for the rest of us.

Director Bill Pohlad made a couple of interesting casting choices. First, he gave the talented Paul Dano the role of Brian in his 1960s heyday, as his mental stability increasingly wavers. Then, rather than aging Dano for later scenes, John Cusack plays the significantly impaired 1980s Wilson. I went in thinking the two would look nothing alike, and they were even encouraged to develop their portrayals independently, yet, as Variety reviewer Andrew Barker says, “this disconnect (between the two) works, and Cusack’s avoidance of mimicry suggests a man who has lost nearly all lingering ties to the young man he once was.” It turns out to be part of the film’s power.

Reese Witherspoon lookalike Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, the woman who finds something to love in the damaged, middle-aged musician. But her efforts are thwarted by his psychotherapist—pill-pushing Dr. Eugene Landy, played to a diabolical T by Paul Giamatti (with hair). Wilson’s dad, who shows no redeeming paternal instincts, is played by Bill Camp. It’s worth knowing that the real-life Brian Wilson generally agrees with these portrayals.

The opening sequence is played on the California beach in super-saturated color, with redder surfboards and bluer ocean than was ever possible. The beautiful closing credits feature the real Brian Wilson singing the 1988 song that gave the film its title.

Audio and visual evocations of the 60s, like the movie’s poster above, are effective without feeling artsy and indulgent. I particularly enjoyed the documentary-style music sessions with members of The Wrecking Crew (who provided practically unknown backup for so many musical groups of the 1960s), as they helped Wilson translate the music in his head into some of the most innovative performances of the era for the album Pet Sounds. “To capture the artistic process in this way is extraordinary, and in many ways unprecedented,” said Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News, with much credit due writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner. Atticus Ross’s mashup of Wilson’s music creates a terrific soundtrack.

Critics have been quick to praise this movie’s avoidance of the trite formulas employed in so many movies about entertainers. I didn’t read up on Wilson beforehand, so that the movie could surprise me, and it was authentically tense and totally engaging. Don’t jump up when it ends. You’ll want to see what happened to several of the principals.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 90%; audience score 91%.

3 thoughts on “Love & Mercy

  1. Dano’s performance is mesmerizing and the costumes–plaids, stripes, Hawaiian prints along with Banks’s Barbie doll apparel–add to the overall good vibrations.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reviews. I particularly appreciate how you weave other commentators writing into your post. Added to the must-see list.

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