Film review: Love and Mercy

David Gritten / 10 July 2015

David Gritten is impressed by Love and Mercy, an account of the Beach Boys’ troubled genius Brian Wilson.

I regard Love and Mercy as one of the best music ‘biopics’ in many years, though I’m aware this might sound like damning it with faint praise. Too many films based on the lives of music artists are superficial, obediently tracking the headline moments in musicians’ careers without examining the wellsprings of their creative impulses.

You can’t say that about Love and Mercy, which takes a very different tack. Brian Wilson, the main composer for the Beach Boys, was a troubled soul who infused his music with a remarkable depth of feeling. Wilson literally heard sounds in his head (the lazy clichéd definition of an unhinged person) and laboured at reproducing them in the studio. His success in this endeavour makes him one of the greatest talents in popular music in the last half century.

But in any account of Wilson’s life, his personal struggles to retain mental stability jostle for space with his musical brilliance. Love and Mercy is directed by Bill Pohlad, best known as a producer; his most recent prominent credit was the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Pohlad made the radical decision to have two actors play him; the excellent Paul Dano portrays Wilson as a younger man, nervy, withdrawn, yet capable of creating a masterpiece as unnervingly brilliant as the Pet Sounds album. In his later years he is played by John Cusack, who captures his fragility and tentative manner – he looks, accurately, like a man struggling to cope with the aftermath of deep trauma.

To lift a Beach Boys song title, there are heroes and villains in this story – in the first camp, Wilson himself, of course, but also the staunch Melinda Ledbetter (splendidly played by Elizabeth Banks) who he married in later life and who helped him regain his creative spark. Two villains stand out: Brian’s father, the unlovable Murry (Bill Camp), a cruel, violent man who bullied and terrorised his sons; and the dubious psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who took Brian on as a client and ended up controlling his life to an appalling extent.   

The other Beach Boys don’t get much of a look-in. Singer Mike Love (who is Brian’s cousin) is portrayed as somewhat doltish, and utterly unable to comprehend Brian’s musical breakthroughs. It’s a shame Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis don’t get much of a look-in – in any other group, they’d have been regarded as substantial musicians. But Brian’s unearthly talent simply eclipsed them.

One of the finest aspects of Love and Mercy is that unlike most music films, it takes time to investigate the source of the lovely music it celebrates. There’s a joyous sequence in which the younger Brian invites a bunch of red-hot session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew to improvise with him. They do so, and it’s inspiring to him – finally, here are guys who come close to understanding his creative processes and try to turn those sounds in his head into music. Dano’s Brian looks at his happiest; he even revels in The Wrecking Crew’s little musical mistakes and incorporates them into songs.

In short, then, Love and Mercy is a piece of work worthy of a man who could create such pop classics as God Only Knows, Surf’s Up and Caroline No. It takes Brian Wilson seriously, places his creative genius into a credible context – and stands as an intriguing, thoughtful entertainment.

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