Love and Mercy
by Jordan Canahai
The new Brian Wilson biopic weaves together two different chapters from the brilliant but tortured singer-songwriter-producer’s life in a similar way The Beach Boys music blended multiple voices together in harmony. The first one is set in the 1960s and details how the young Wilson (Paul Dano) stopped touring with The Beach Boys at the height of their popularity due to mounting pressures and instead retreated to the recording studio where he created visionary pop music of soaring ambition. The other takes place during the 1980s and finds the older Wilson (John Cusack) living a lonely and reclusive life, confined by his mental illness and exploited by live-in psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). As his condition worsens, his attempts to reach out to model-turned-car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) may prove his best chance at finding peace and happiness.
What could have been a clichéd rise and fall musical biopic is elevated in Love and Mercy by the strengths and contrasts of its two lead performances. Dano looks uncannily similar to Wilson in the mid-60s and his performance effectively conveys the remarkable charisma, intelligence, and fragility of the wunderkind artist. Fans of The Beach Boys are sure to appreciate the segments in which Wilson throws budget concerns and arguably even common sense to the wind during the protracted, difficult recording sessions of Pet Sounds and Smile. While Cusack admittedly doesn’t much resemble Wilson and has frequently played characters of sharp wit and confidence, he nonetheless does fine work bringing to life a broken man unable to express himself. He hits just the right notes of vulnerability and humor in his scenes with Banks, while she makes the most out of what could have been the thankless girlfriend role.
Director Bill Pohlad’s assured work moves the story along briskly and finds him capturing a couple scenes of unusual power, such as a solo performance of “God Only Knows” by the young Wilson before his disapproving father, or an emotional scene in which the older, drugged out Wilson is tormented by the cruel treatment of Landy. While Love and Mercy occasionally falls prey to the problems of usual musical biopics through some clumsy handling of exposition and the one-dimensional portrayal of the villainous Landy, it ultimately succeeds as a moving character study about a man whose extraordinary mind was both a blessing and a curse, as well as an artist who was fated to create more happiness than he could hope to share in.
Watch the trailer for Love and Mercy
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