★ ★ ★ ★
Understated and deeply personal, Love & Mercy is an intimate film that covers two periods in the life of the Beach Boys’ creative mastermind, Brian Wilson. Director Bill Pohlad juxtaposes Wilson’s musical genius with his lifelong battle with mental illness in this nonlinear depiction of a fascinating individual. More of a psychological character study than a rock-music biopic, Love & Mercy is unnervingly effective.
The story begins around 1965 — the Beach Boys are hugely successful purveyors of youth culture, and have amassed a cache of radio hits in a short span of time. Yet Wilson (played as a young man by Paul Dano) is growing increasingly reserved; he hates the oppressive tour schedule that’s sending him and his bandmates across the globe, and which leaves him little time to focus on his musical craft. On a flight back to California, Wilson is overwhelmed by his anxieties and fears and suffers an incapacitating panic attack. Soon after, he convinces the rest of the band (which includes his two brothers and cousin Mike Love) that he should remain at home to work on their next album, while a fill-in musician takes his place on the tour.
Wilson becomes immersed in the complex musical arrangements for his forthcoming album Pet Sounds, which marks a sea change, aurally and lyrically, from what the band has done before. He experiments with an arsenal of new instruments in the studio, and tries to get a group of session musicians to recreate the symphonies he hears in his head. All the while, he is becoming detached from reality; he’s a victim of his own crushing genius, which demands nothing less than perfection. When the rest of the Beach Boys return from their tour, they are apprehensive over Pet Sounds — particularly Mike Love (keenly played by Jake Abel), who questions the direction Wilson is headed in. The album is released to initially lukewarm reviews, which, combined with his experimentation with LSD and a lifetime of pressure from his overbearing father Murry (Bill Camp), causes Wilson’s mental state to deteriorate even further.
This story is intercut with another plot line that follows Wilson (now played by John Cusack) roughly 20 years later. He’s under 24-hour surveillance by psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), and being fed a cocktail of prescription drugs in order to help him readjust to society after years as a recluse. Wilson meets a Cadillac saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), and strikes up a relationship. The domineering Landy tries to threaten her into complying with his control over Wilson, urging her to report their interactions directly to him. Melinda quickly realizes the threat the psychologist poses to Wilson’s sanity and livelihood, and attempts to show his family (whom he has been barred from contacting) that Landy’s influence has only made things worse.
Pohlad, already a successful producer with The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), skillfully navigates the dual story lines. The intricacies of Wilson’s complex life could have easily been lost between the two separate portrayals, but Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner manage to weave the two parts together into a satisfying whole. Love & Mercy is carried by its spectacular cast. Paul Dano’s mannerisms perfectly depict the intense musical genius of the young Wilson. And as his eccentricities shade into outright madness, Dano keys in on his paranoia and neuroses. At the same time, Cusack is wonderfully reserved as the older but still childlike Wilson. He’s soft-spoken and haunted by his inner demons, yet his humanity and charisma manage to shine through. Giamatti is excellent in the difficult role of the abusive Landy, and his scenes with the magnetic Elizabeth Banks are equally enthralling and disturbing.
Brian Wilson’s disquieting mental issues ultimately helped drive him to create gorgeous, enduring pieces of music. Pet Sounds went on to be recognized as a watershed moment in pop history, and its influence on the entire landscape of music cannot be overstated. It’s a record of incredible complexity, and Pohlad’s dramatization of the creative process that led to it is fascinating. Love & Mercy is a wonderful humanization of mental illness and an immersive character study of a monumental figure.