Movie Review: 'Love & Mercy'

Paul Dano plays the young Brian Wilson during the early days of the Beach Boys in "Love & Mercy."

In Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy - the summer’s hot biopic about the love, genius and madness of Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson - marijuana is a happy thing shared by the group while listening to their hits getting played back in the recording studio. LSD also deliverers a bright note for Wilson, who says, “First it was nothing, then it was everything” as he smiles. The bad drugs are pills, served up as a tool by villain Dr. Eugene Landy, who prescribes massive doses of the wrong medication as he moves to take control of the tortured pop star’s income stream.  

The drugs provide a backdrop for a strong story and performances, with Paul Dano playing the younger Brian Wilson who stops touring with the band after a panic attack and focuses on capturing the melodies in his head in the recording studio. John Cusack portrays the middle-aged Wilson, who strikes up a relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman with a heart of gold. The dramatic tension in the movie revolves around the abuse the younger Wilson gets from his father, who hit him so hard he lost nearly all the hearing in one ear, and the cruelty inflicted by the controlling Landy, played with gleeful menace by Paul Giamatti. These figures torment Wilson throughout the movie and seem to drive some of his mental illness that left him holed up in his house for years.

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Beach Boys fans already familiar with the Landy story will enjoy the film’s focus on the creation of Pet Sounds, the critically-acclaimed rock and pop masterpiece often cited by Paul McCartney as one of his favorites. The characters mention how the Beatles' Rubber Soul was breaking new ground and Wilson rises to the challenge by coming up with his own brand of drug-inspired music. At one point, he beckons to his bandmates to swim in the deep end of the pool, but they refuse to join him. Wilson remains with the water above his head musically as well, while the rest of the Wilson brothers stay in the shallow end. The footage of Wilson in the studio may seem a bit tedious to some, but it really breaks down the DNA of Pet Sounds and how he managed to come up with some mind-blowing songs like "Good Vibrations."

Love & Mercy (in theaters now) stands above most music biopics, thanks to Dano and Cusack both delivering compassionate and memorable performances. In press interviews promoting the film, Wilson said it's on target overall. He appears during the final credits of the movie, singing "Love and Mercy," the lead track on his 1988 self-titled solo album that marked his return to the music world. It’s a good parting song with a fine message for these troubled times. After seeing the film, you’ll understand why.

Matt Chelsea

Matt Chelsea

Loves a nice morning buzz with his coffee as a bicycle commuter, counterculture scribe and dad.