Love & Mercy, the new Brian Wilson biopic from Bill Pohland, is unconventional in its presentation as it is told nonlinearly and uses two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) to play the same lead character at different stages in his life. The nonlinear narrative is reminiscent of La Vie en Rose, another biopic from 2007 starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. The choice here to use two actors works because both Dano and Cusack do a fantastic job embodying Wilson, but it remains an odd choice. Seeing Dano carry the entire film with the use of makeup for the older version of Brian, much like Cotillard did with Piaf, could have made for a much more immersive experience into the life of the legendary musician. There are moments where it feels like two completely separate stories and two different characters, which seems to be what the director was going for, but a more ambitious film would have given all of the responsibility to Dano.
Dano plays the younger version of Wilson during his decision to stay home and work on The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds while the rest of the band tours around Asia. When they return Brian is eager to show Mike Love (Jake Abel), Al Jardine (Graham Rodgers), and his brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern) the material he has been working on. Mike is not as enthusiastic as the rest of the band. He asks Brian if the “I Know There’s An Answer” lyrics are about drugs and Brian tells him they are just about ego, which reads as a direct and not-so-subtle diss to Mike, who is portrayed as having issues with Brian wanting to control the creation of their sound. Wilson also stresses and becomes increasingly eccentric throughout the process. He tells his first wife Marilyn (Erin Darke) he is going to make “the greatest album ever recorded” and worries about the acceptance of his once physically and now psychologically abusive father Murray (Bill Camp).
This all takes a toll on him and he talks of “hearing voices” even before they begin to record Pet Sounds, which brings us to the second story that takes place during the late 1980s. Played by Cusack, Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) at the Cadillac dealership where she works selling cars. They start up a relationship and Melinda worries for his mental health and wellbeing under the supervision of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who is now Brian’s legal guardian and has diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and forbidden him from having relationships with his children. Melinda realizes Dr. Landry is not as concerned for Brian’s health as he presents himself and believes that, rather than pills, what Brian needs is love and to get back to his old self in order to be happy.
As Dr. Landy, Paul Giamatti plays one of the most terrifying and manipulative characters ever put on screen, and though the real-life Wilson has said how accurate the character is to the real Dr. Landy, it is hard to imagine a human being that awful and comes off as a bit of a caricature used for dramatic effect. It is a film that appears supervised by Brian Wilson, so it is hard to say how close to reality and unbiased many of the events in the film are. That being said, it works fairly well as drama when taken as a work of fiction. It is not an all-encompassing look at the life of Brian Wilson, but a snapshot of the darkest time of his life and his most remarkable creative period.
Fans of the Beach Boys should see it just for the Pet Sounds recording scenes which are done extremely well and have an almost documentary feel to them that transports you back into the 60s and into the iconic studio with the band. The music scenes are by far the most enjoyable of the film. If you are unfamiliar with the Beach Boys it is still a film that is worth the watch because it is an engaging work of drama that is well paced, well acted, and provides a glimpse into the life of one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century.