When one thinks of The Beach Boys, their lightweight early-'60s pop hits come to mind: catchy, distinctly California ditties such as "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surf City," "Surfin' U.S.A.," and "I Get Around." The bandmade up of brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardineultimately matured and developed their music beginning with 1966's well-received, less-commercial album "Pet Sounds," but behind the scenes relationships had begun to splinter as band leader and songwriter Brian Wilson's substance abuse and psychological breakdown escalated. In a hypnotic rush of imagery, "Love & Mercy" gets at the essence of Brian's experiences during this period and, later, in the '80s when his mental illness and the controlling abuse of psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) nearly swallowed him whole.
Portraying the eldest Wilson sibling at different stages of life, John Cusack (2014's "Grand Piano
") and Paul Dano (2013's "Prisoners
") deliver impassioned performances that truly immerse the actors in their complicated shared role. Playing the '60s Brian, Dano hauntingly conveys his twentysomething character's increased introversion and waning mental health, his struggle to please unforgiving father Murry (Bill Camp), and his fight to creatively branch out from the bubblegum melodies which typified The Beach Boys' rise to stardom. In the mid-'80s, Cusack embodies the loneliness and victimization of a broken middle-aged man suffering from a form of schizophrenia whose burgeoning romance with former model/current Cadillac car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) proved to be his savior in getting him away from his manipulative therapist Eugene Landy.
Intercutting between two decades separated by approximately twenty years, "Love & Mercy" isn't a detailed, episodic biopic of Brian Wilson, concentrating instead on two particular chapters in his life. Supporting characters move in and out of frame with too-little developmentthis includes Brian's brothers (Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern) and his first wife, Marilyn (Erin Darke)and the concluding '60s scenes are missing the connective narrative tissue to cohesively inform Brian's future self. What Director Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman (2014's "The Quiet Ones
") and Michael Alan Lerner instead accomplish is passionately capture a specific irresistible spirit, one driven by emotion over a tidy A-to-B narrative.
Gorgeously shot with sun-drenched, west-coast appeal by Robert D. Yeoman (2014's "The Grand Budapest Hotel
"), "Love & Mercy" carries with it a nostalgic poignancy for a time and music gone by. Scenes where Brian collaborates in studio on the recording of "Pet Sounds" (including mega-hit "Good Vibrations") are mesmerizing to behold. The extensive soundtrack is a character unto itself ("God Only Knows" is especially well-used, as is the title track during the end credits). Elizabeth Banks (2015's "Pitch Perfect 2
") is tremendous in a layered, touching dramatic turn as Melinda, serving as the eyes of the audience as she grows to care for the sincere, romantic, heart-on-his-sleeve Brian even as she worries for his well-being. A late scene where she confronts an outraged, verbally assaultive Landy face-to-face, in an instant calling his cowardly bluff, is utterly riveting. There is undoubtedly much more to be said about the intriguing, talented Brian Wilson, but "Love & Mercy" does one better than a conventional biography of the man likely ever could: it bears his soul.