By Gary Murray

Starring Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner

Directed by Bill Pohlad

Running time 120 min

MPAA Rating PG-13

Selig Film News Rating Matinee


Much has been said over the years about Brian Wilson, the spiritual leader of the Beach Boys.  Some see him as a tragic soul always trying to get the approval of his father while others see him as the leader of a surf group that never could equal the British Invasion.  In the movie Love & Mercy, we are presented with many different aspects of the man who crafted some of the biggest hits of a few decades ago.

The film opens with Brian (John Cusack) and his meeting with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).  She sells Cadillac cars and has no idea who he is, the leader of the Beach Boys. Very soon, she finds out that Brian seems to be controlled by his doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).  The doctor keeps a very tight rein on his patient.

The film bounces between the 1960s and the 1980s.  In the scenes from the 1960s, Paul Dano plays the part of Brian Wilson.  This is during the massive creative output of the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds.   Wilson, when recording the LP, was following the muse in his head that was very different from what everyone on radio was producing. 

While Brian was crafting this music with studio musicians, the rest of the band was touring Japan. Eventually, the two get back together and the rest of the band does not what to make of this new sound.  Some are intrigued while some like Mike Love (Jake Abel) just want the same old formula.   Love is against this new direction.

The other part of the film shows the 1980s and the budding romance between Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter.  It also chronicles the relationship between Brian Wilson and his doctor.  It is unorthodox treatment that includes bags of drugs.  The more Melinda watches the treatments, the more she believes Brian is in danger.  Basically, the doctor has taken the role of Brian’s father who was a harsh task master.  Of the two separate stories, this is the weaker of the elements.

The film is of two sides of a rollercoaster.  It is of the time before the first dip and the other is of that last curve before the all-stop.  There is the beginning of the descent into madness and the time right after the three year exile in bed.  Yes, the good doctor got Brian out of bed and back into the real world but at what mental price?  That is one of the most debatable questions of rock. 

With two actors, there becomes an interesting moment of ‘compare and contrast’ between the two interpretations.  But, there is no equal to the performance of Paul Dano as Brian Wilson.  He captures the delusional spirit of a musical genius who just wasn’t made for these times.  The scene where his father comes in and tells Brian Wilson that he’s sold the rights to the Beach Boys music for $750, 000 is a heart-breaker.  Dano gives the look as if his children have been taken from him. 

The more he struggles to put into the world the music he hears in his head, the more he knows he’s failed.  It is the kind of struggle that musicians have does since the beginning of time.   Director Bill Pohlad should have stuck with the young man for both ages of Brian Wilson.

Elizabeth Banks as Melinda eventually becomes our eyes and ears into the life of the later Brian Wilson.  While there is little insight into her character, it is through her character that we get insights into both Wilson and his doctor.  We see just how little there is between the sane and the insane.  At the end, the good doctor is more like the crazed Kenny from Private Parts than a physician healing a patient. 

 Love & Mercy is not a Beach Boys bio-picture but is more of a Brian Wilson film.  And to be honest, it is not a Brian Wilson feature.  At best, it is a snapshot of two different parts of the grandiose life of one of the titans of American music. It is not a story that can be told in two days, much less two hours.  This film does not do the life justice.  

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