“Love and Mercy,” a Music Biopic that Really Sings

By Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

Biographical movies are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s certainly no shortage of biographical films about musicians, either, but the unconventional structure and strong performances make “Love and Mercy,” a look at the life and times of Brian Wilson, one of the better entries into the canon.

It’s a wise decision to start the movie with a selection of Beach Boys’ songs, to remind and/or inform the audience how popular they were and how many memorable songs they cut. The rest of the film then uses John Cusack, as older Wilson, and Paul Dano, as younger Wilson, to depict everything from Wilson’s time in the band, his orchestration of the famed “Pet Sounds” album–which Rolling Stone declared the second-best album in history in 2003– his poisonous relationship with his odious father, his struggles with “hearing voices” in his head, falling for Melinda Ledbetter as an older man, and her battle to extract him from under the influence of the warped Dr. Eugene Landy.

Wilson is clearly a tortured musical genius. The scenes of him putting together the revolutionary “Pet Sounds”  with a group of musicians are an extraordinary look inside the process of a musician, and they’re juxtaposed with his vicious, abusive father. Unfortunately for Wilson, he trades one domineering man for another, as Landy is just as shady and manipulative as his old man. The younger Wilson eventually goes totally off the deep end, which is how the older Wilson eventually comes under the spell of Landy.

The clouds of depression and fog of overmedication are finally broken slightly for older Wilson when he meets Ledbetter, who loves him for his bracing honesty and despite his mental and emotional problems.

Dano seems to specialize in dark–or, at least, off-kilter–roles like this. He is utterly immersed in character, and his deeply-method performance is worthy of awards nominations–he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Satellite Award. I can’t imagine anyone considers Elizabeth Banks a great actress, but all credit to her here; she gets a meaty role in a quality film, and she raises her game accordingly. This may be a career performance, and she’s lurking on the periphery of the best supporting actress category for the Oscars. She and Cusack have superb chemistry in their scenes together, and Cusack hasn’t been this good or had a role this terrific at least since “The Ice Harvest,” all the way back in 2005. The always-excellent Paul Giamatti is suitably creepy and shady as Landy, and the music in the film–obviously–is a genuine treat.

By going back and forth between old and young Wilson, “Love and Mercy” is able to cover a deceptively long amount of territory in a time frame of under two hours, and it never seems like a slog. It’s a neat look at the fascinating life of a brilliant musician, told excellently. “Love and Mercy” earns a 65, plus-plus, on the 20-80 scale.

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