DIR: Bill Pohlad • WRI:Oren Moverman, Michael Lerner • PRO: Jim Lefkowitz, Oren Moverman, Bill Pohlad, Clarie Rudnick Polstein, Ann Ruark, John Wells • DOP: Robert D. Yeoman • ED: Dino Jonsäter • MUS: Atticus Ross • CAST: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Dee Wallace
Bill Pohlad’s biography of Beach Boy Brian Wilson delivers an on-point, touching and insightful portrayal of his life both personally and professionally.
The fact that the film is set both in the sixties and the eighties is enlightening. Wilson’s struggles with his mental health erupt around the time of seminal album Pet Sounds in the sixties, and by the eighties he has reached the depths of his psychosis.
A young Wilson, played by Paul Dano, is a clearly fraught, yet brilliant musician. He is struggling to overcome many obstacles, including unwilling band members, and an extremely unsupportive father. His intrepid musical ability is before his time, and some believe it to be too risky. This frustrates Wilson, and frustration is a key theme throughout this film. He is frustrated by his illness, his father and his music – and both Cusack and Dano capture this frustration perfectly.
It is clear that Wilson’s genius is somewhat spurred on by the on-going voices and noises in his head. These voices and noises seem to inspire him, and are the inspiration for much of the Beach Boys unique sound. Several scenes in the studio give an extremely authentic feel to the film, and parts feel quite documentary-like. For music fans, it is an insight into how some of the best sounds of the sixties developed.
As Wilson ages, John Cusack takes over the role. From here, it is evident that the illness has now dominated much of his personality, and changed him completely. There is hardly any lucidity left.
For this reason, using another actor to play an older, sicker Wilson was an excellent move. Had Pohlad used just one actor, his descent into madness would not have been as remarkable. John Cusack plays the aging rocker with a finesse and believability that hone in on the extent of his demise since the swinging sixties.
Similar to the sixties there is a constant barrage of people surrounding Wilson. Be it his manipulative Doctor (Giamatti) or his entourage, it seems that no matter what decade, there are always people telling him what to do and making decisions for him.
There are also some extreme highs in the movie, and it is not all incredibly depressing. A beautiful relationship develops between Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and elements of this are quite sweet. This, blended with scenes that are extremely difficult to watch like Wilson in the depths of a sedative state, and in the grips of mental breakdowns, combine perfectly to leave viewers with a definitive view of his turbulent life.
Love and Mercy depicts the irony that was The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson impeccably. The music they created in the sixties was uplifting and vibrant. It was for dancing and surfing (even though they couldn’t surf…). But behind that unique sound that defined a generation was a man struggling with paranoid schizophrenia and slipping deeper into a psychosis, made only worse by the lifestyle and drugs of the time.
Sixties Wilson uses his music to express himself, and to appease the voices in his head, but it is not without its cost to his personal life, which is revealed by Cusack.
Both Cusack and Dano play the part of Wilson in their own different ways. Both actors capture his child-like innocence, and combine it with the very dark side of his illness. These contrasts work well to depict the life and loves of an artist whose music has been enjoyed for over fifty years, and no doubt will continue to be enjoyed for many more generations to come.
The fantastic soundtrack, exceptional writing, and of course true story mean that Love & Mercy is not just for fans of The Beach Boys, but for fans of music in general, particularly those with a penchant for a troubled genius.