Brian Wilson has become recognized as a true innovator & musical icon for his work with The Beach Boys & as a solo artist. The word genius gets thrown around pretty casually these days, but that’s an apt description of Brian’s talent. Sadly, Wilson suffered a lot during his life. He endured a lot of pain & suffered from mental health issues before finding peace & contentment. He's now restored & rejuvenated, and touring again this summer. The new film Love & Mercy attempts (and largely succeeds) to give us a window into the mind & world of this brilliant, troubled, sometimes misunderstood artist. The film moves back & forth between two critical time periods in Brian’s life; the 1960s, when he was the leader & chief songwriter for The Beach Boys, and the 1980s, when he was under the thumb of Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist whose control over & obsession with Brian reached dangerous levels.
In the 1960s scenes, we see Brian (played by Paul Dano) retire from touring with the immensely popular Beach Boys. He stays behind to write & produce new music for the group. Inspired by exciting new music like The Beatles groundbreaking album Rubber Soul, Brian wants to move away from the pop tunes The Beach Boys are famous for, and create songs & sounds using new styles & techniques. There are some excellent scenes that recreate Brian at work in the studio with the famous group of backing musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. They're collaborating with Brian & recording the backing tracks for what will become the now classic album Pet Sounds. When the rest of the group return from the road, Brian plays them back the work he’s done, and asks them to help record the vocals. This begins a rift within the band, when some members, especially Mike Love, are against this new direction for the group. But Brian wants to continue, and take the musical transformation even further on their next record, Smile, which is eventually cancelled during the long studio sessions for the record. This causes more strife within the band, even though they work together with Brian on the "Good Vibrations" single, which becomes a tremendous success.
The portions of the story set in the 1960s alternate with scenes set in the 1980s, where Brian (now played by John Cusack) is struggling to overcome years of depression and drug use & deal with the emotional fallout of his turbulent youth, growing up with his abusive father. He's under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. Brian meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, who's excellent in the role) while trying to buy a car, and they begin a tentative relationship. The sheltered, fragile Brian is completely dominated by Landy, who approves & supervises all access to Brian, and monitors him at all times. Landy also keeps Brian away from his family, and has him deeply medicated for what he says are Brian’s serious mental issues. Melinda begins to suspect that the doctor’s methods are hurting Brian more than helping him, and tries to contact Brian’s family to get help in freeing him from Landy’s control.
Dano is amazing as the young Brian; he doesn’t act the role so much as he inhabits it. He even sings solo in a pivotal scene. Dano brilliantly conveys Brian’s musical genius & fragile emotional state; his work is truly phenomenal. Cusack is very good as the older Brian, and accurately portrays the older Brian's personality & state of mind. But at times his familiarity to us (from his many previous roles) reminds us that this is John Cusack playing Brian Wilson. Still, he has some effective moments, and has really wonderful chemistry with Wilson as Ledbetter, whom Brian eventually married. Between the two actors, you get a real sense of Brian’s complex psyche. Giamatti has some creepy, chilling moments as Dr. Landy, and even if his performance occasionally veers into one note villainy, you get a very real idea of just how much this possessive, horrible person took over Brian’s life, and caused him great harm.
Of course, we get to hear a lot of music in the film, and see recreations of some famous moments in the career of the Beach Boys. Director Bill Pohlad and his crew have also put together some well-done sequences using visuals and sound to show us what’s going on in Brian’s head, and how he perceives things. There are some minor flaws: the rest of the band is portrayed in the background, and you don’t always get a strong sense of their characters or identities. The 1970s (when Brian’s tailspin into darkness became more pronounced) is mostly skipped over, though there are a couple of references to those years. But Oren Moverman & Michael A. Lerner’s screenplay truly gives us some insights into this complex, but impressive artist, who most people know through the wonderful music he’s given us. Brian Wilson was a man ahead of his time, and the rest of the rock & roll world finally caught up with him. Love & Mercy is currently in theaters, and is highly recommended. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGQ.