Even if you’re not a fan of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, you shouldn’t miss Bill Pohlad’s inventive, affecting film about them, which cannily charts a course that avoids the clichés that so often derail musical biographies. “Love & Mercy” departs from the usual, year-by-year formula by focusing on two distinct periods in Wilson’s life, the first in the late sixties when he took a break from touring to record the seminal “Pet Sounds” album and began experiencing serious mental disturbances, and the second in the eighties, when he was rescued from the control of his pill-minded therapist, which left him reclusive and fear-ridden, by the unlikely intervention of a woman. The script juxtaposes scenes from the different eras, with Paul Dano playing Wilson in the earlier scenes and John Cusack in the later ones.
The fact that the role is split in this way might already cause cautionary flags to go up; and it is, in fact, true that the two actors don’t match up terribly well physically. But the surprising thing is that the disparity doesn’t much matter in this case, because both are so good in their individual ways. Dano, one of the most remarkable American actors working today, continues the string of extraordinary performances he’s given in both lead and supporting roles since his breakthrough turn in “L.I.E.” back in 2001. He puts his natural nerdy fragility to superb use to portray a young man with a creative energy he can’t always control and psychological problems that will gradually overwhelm him. Cusack, on the other hand, whose early promise seemed to have stalled apart from smaller parts in films like “Maps to the Stars,” returns to form with an achingly sensitive portrait of a broken man who needs to find his spark again—one wonders whether he’s investing the character with some of his own experience. And the fact that they’re so very different actually accentuates the severity of the break between the young, enthusiastic Wilson and the older, shattered one.
To be sure, Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner (the first of whom worked with Todd Haynes on the far weirder biopic about Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There”) begin in a rather conventional way, with a brief overview of the Beach Boys’ pop success by the mid-sixties. But then the script shifts to a panic attack that Dano’s Wilson suffers on a flight during a tour, and his opting to bypass an upcoming gig in Japan to concentrate on recording a new album that he says will rival the Beatles’ innovative ways. It then follows him as he obsessively seeks perfection while working on “Pet Sounds” with the fabled group of L.A. pickup musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, earning their admiration in the process despite (or perhaps because of) his personal oddity. His efforts are undercut by his dismissive father Murry (Bill Camp), whose malign influence is clearly identified as one reason for Brian’s problems, and later challenged by the more practically-oriented members of the band, particularly cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), who rightly doubts that the new direction will win public approval but misunderstands the nature of Brian’s achievement.
At the other end of the chronological span, Cusack’s Wilson is introduced as a halting, beaten-down shell of his former self, a guy who moseys befuddled into a Cadillac showroom and begins chatting up salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). She’s at first slightly alarmed but also somewhat charmed by the fellow, who eventually tells her who he is. Before long Wilson’s manipulative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who’s also his legal guardian, shows up to return him to the beachside mansion where he’s kept—closely watched, thoroughly medicated and separated from his family—in a benumbed fog, the treatment justified by Landy on the basis of his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
But as a result of Wilson’s neediness and Ledbetter’s concern for him, Landy can’t keep the two completely apart, so he tries to enlist Melinda in his regimen of absolute control (which, of course, also means exploitation). In time she comes to see the therapist for the control freak he is, and works to entice Brian to break from him. There’s an eventual showdown for Wilson’s soul, and the fact that late in life he was able to escape dependence on Landy and return, though still damaged, to the larger world offers a clear indication of who wins.
This is an inversion of the Rise and Fall narrative so common to musical biographies, and though the script certainly simplifies the myriad fluctuations in Wilson’s life and career by simply skipping over a couple of decades, it works surprisingly well. In the hands of Dano and Cusack, who perform a remarkable duet despite the fact that they never share a scene, Wilson emerges as a gentle, extraordinarily gifted individual afflicted by mental distress exacerbated by drug use until he can no longer function normally. The old saw that the solution to his condition lies in the love of a good woman may come across as overly simplistic, but Banks’ warmth makes it credible. Giamatti, as is sometimes his wont, comes on terribly strong as Landy; one might have appreciated a little damping down of the bug-eyed routine. But he certainly makes a formidable adversary for Ledbetter, particularly in a scene where he confronts her in the dealership, threatening violence.
Though this is only his second film as a director, longtime producer Pohlad has obviously learned a great deal from the notable helmers he’s worked with in the past—people like Ang Lee, Sean Penn, Terrence Malick, Steve McQueen and Jean-Marc Vallee. Yet he doesn’t merely imitate, bringing a distinctive voice to the picture. He’s also shown skill not only in the selection of his cast, but in his choice of crew. Robert Yeoman’s cinematographer goes far beyond the standard-issue quality his surname might suggest, Keith Cunningham’s production design and Danny Glicker’s costumes capture the period detail without exaggeration, and Dino Jonsater’s editing skillfully manages the transitions between the two time frames. The sound is especially important in a film of this kind, and Atticus Ross’ music combines with the sound mix of Eugene Gearty and Edward Tise to sometimes stunning effect.
“Love & Mercy”—a title derived from the opening track of Wilson’s debut solo album of 1988—is an exceptional musical biography featuring not one but two exemplary lead performances. The vibrations it gives off aren’t just good, they’re great.