Even if you’re not a fan of the Beach Boys or familiar with all of the songs on their widely-beloved Pet Sounds album, chances are you’ve at least heard “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” about a million times each. These songs are stateside classics, almost as much a part of our national identity as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The mastermind behind those legendary tunes is Brian Wilson, the multi-talented leader of the band. Wilson composed, arranged, and produced Pet Sounds. Twenty years after the album’s creation, Wilson’s mental state had deteriorated and he was living under the care of a manipulative psychologist named Eugene Landy. He found himself isolated from both his bandmates and his family.
Love & Mercy tells the stories of both of these important periods in Wilson’s life — the mid-’60s creation of Pet Sounds, and his later struggles. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack each take on the role of Wilson (Dano playing “Brian – Past,” and Cusack “Brian – Future”), joined by Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter.
Love & Mercy was first released in 2014 but received a slightly-wider release earlier this year. The film was directed by Bill Pohlad, and while Brian Wilson himself was not heavily involved in the production, he has spoken in support of the film and vouched for its accuracy. (In an interview with Fox 7 Austin, Wilson praises Giamatti in particular, saying the performance was so real it scared him.)
Bill Pohlad has created a fascinating film with Love & Mercy, different from any other musical biopic I’ve watched. The purpose of the film seems to be not to tell the story of the Beach Boys or of Wilson’s life thus far, but to help the viewer understand Wilson, both as a musical genius and as a human being.
The film offers both an insider’s view and an outsider’s view. We’re able to see things as Brian sees them — his meticulous perfectionism regarding the Pet Sounds songs, his determination to do things his own way — but also from an outsider’s view, with Melinda’s perspective and those of the other band members also represented. The result feels very personal.
There is a very striking use of sound throughout Love & Mercy. In a number of scenes we hear things as Brian hears them — the amplified sounds of forks and knives on plates, drowning out all other noise, for example.
The dual time periods are interwoven fairly well. The film moves back and forth from one of the other with the use of flashbacks. In one striking and surreal scene near the end, the time periods converge with scenes from Wilson’s childhood in a dream-like sequence. At times the film does feel fragmented and the transitions between time periods aren’t the smoothest, but I didn’t find this to be a huge problem.
It’s impossible to review this film without mentioning the performances of John Cusack and Paul Dano. Both give strong performances, portraying Brian at very different points in his life. Dano in particular impresses with a portrayal that seems very honest and authentic.
Love & Mercy is quite a dark film, with an overwhelming mood of melancholy, even when the pace lags a bit. Those looking for a biopic that matches the upbeat mood of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits should look elsewhere, but Love & Mercy is a fascinating and well-crafted film.