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Review: Love & Mercy (2015)

Love & Mercy (2015)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Premise: A biographical picture about Brian Wilson, the song writer for The Beach Boys. The film alternates between the young Wilson, played by Paul Dano, as he creates music amid a growing mental illness, and the older Wilson, played by John Cusack, who is controlled and abused by corrupt psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). 

What Works: Biographical stories of artists and musicians tend to succeed when they link the work to the other events in the subject’s life. In biographical storytelling it is a mistake to isolate the art from the life of the artist; one impacts the other. That’s the great success of Love & Mercy. This film is about the generation-defining music created by The Beach Boys—and specifically by Brian Wilson—and the way mental illness played a part in Wilson’s life and work. The film suggests that Wilson’s sensitivity to sound and his attention to detail were key to his musical genius but this meticulousness was also a symptom of his mental illness. Love & Mercy crosscuts between the 1960s, in which Wilson oversees the creation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Smile albums, and the 1980s at which point Wilson is heavily medicated by therapist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, and meets Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks. The structure of Love & Mercy is very effective with the film jumping between the two decades. The filmmakers tell two stories at once and the different pieces are balanced in drama and proportion. Among the strongest scenes of this movie are the studio sessions; in these sequences the filmmakers use handheld camerawork and lower grade film stock and the unpolished look gives the scenes a rawness and unpredictability that puts the audience in the midst of artistic creation. Love & Mercy also benefits from some terrific performance. Paul Dano and John Cusack are terrific as Brian Wilson. Dano carefully conveys the musical talent but also the burgeoning illness and Cusack is impressive as the drugged out older Wilson subtly calling for help. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti also contribute a lot to this film. Banks gives Love & Mercy a credible and empathetic point of view while Giamatti throws himself into a slimy and corrupt character.

What Doesn’t: The past and future of Love & Mercy never quite come together. During the creation of Pet Sounds and Smile it is clear that Brian Wilson’s mental stability is falling apart. However, the movie never reaches a point where it connects the Brian Wilson of the 1960s to the Brian Wilson of the 1980s. The connections between the two temporal periods are apparent enough in the crosscutting but the film is missing a clinching moment that connects the parts together. Something else missed in the movie is Brian Wilson’s drug use. It’s well known that Wilson was involved in the drug scene of the 1960s and that this may have accelerated his mental health problems while also revealing musical possibilities but drug use is nearly absent from this film. The ending of Love & Mercy is inconclusive. This portion of the film is about Brian Wilson finding his way back to consciousness but the filmmakers haven’t created a dramatic scenario that acts this out. This is partly a result of the shift in focus between the two parts of the movie. The 1960s portion of Love & Mercy is Wilson’s story and the events are seen from his point of view. The latter portion of the movie is more focused on Melinda Ledbetter as she attempt to rescue Wilson from his abusive caretaker. With its emphasis on Wilson’s mental illness, Love & Mercy may not be the film that fans of The Beach Boys expect. It’s not quite as fun as their music but the movie is also much more than a tribute piece to a beloved band.

Bottom Line: Love & Mercy is an unusual biopic in its structure and approach. The movie comes across a little incomplete but what’s here is impressive and Love & Mercy succeeds in large part due to its terrific central performances.

Episode: #550 (July 12, 2015)