‘Love and Mercy’ throws conventional biopic clichés out the window to give us an uncompromising portrait of the gifted and tormented musician Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. It was a bold move for director Bill Pohlad to weave the story together using two stages of Brian’s life. One is the California boy (Paul Dano) whose band, the Beach Boys defined youth culture in the early 1960s with distinctive vocal harmonies and catchy hit songs like ‘Surfin’ U.S.A’ and ‘Good Vibrations.’ The upbeat music popularized the southern California teenage lifestyle of surfing, cars and romance. The other side of Brian is the darker middle-aged one (John Cusack) that let drugs and a mental disorder lose his way in the 1980s. ‘Love and Mercy’ is a brilliant look at the highs and lows of a creative genius.
What makes the biopic so compelling are the honest performances of Dano and Cusack. It gives us some clarity into the mystery of his life. Thanks to the cinematography of Robert D. Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel), the sun-kissed California of the 1960s is captured with vibrant colors. Pohlad shows the band’s rise to stardom, with a montage of their hit songs played on stage to screaming fans. It’s fun to watch the early carefree days of the Beach Boys. At a house party, with the blue of the pool shimmering off of the lanai, Brian tells his brothers it would be best if they tour Japan without him after he suffers an anxiety attack flying. He tells them that when they come back, he will have new material that will blow them away. Although the record bombed, today ‘Pet Sounds’ is considered one of the most influential pieces of music ever recorded.
The timeline shifts and now we’re seeing an older Brian in the 1980s played by Cusack. It is one of his finest performances in years. He captures the damaged and fragile qualities of the musician. He walks into a Cadillac dealership and starts a conversation with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Melinda is a car saleswoman dressed to the nines in a gorgeous blue dress. She has no idea that she is conversing with the famous Beach Boy. The two have an immediate connection. The chemistry between Banks and Cusack is palpable. Suddenly, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and a bodyguard tap on the Cadillac window where Brian and Melinda are sitting to tell him it is time to go. Before Brian exits the dealership, he passes a note to Melinda on her business card. “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” It’s haunting and poignant at the same time.
The film switches back to the 60s and we see Brian at the peak of his creativity. When he plays his new song “God Only Knows” to his father, his harsh words show perfectly their abusive relationship. Brian is happiest in the studio with a group of legendary studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. This is where Dano hits the right notes. These flashbacks are expertly filmed with grainy detail to give them more authenticity. At times, it feels like you’re watching actual documentary footage. Dano’s performance is a revelation. He disappears into Brian. It’s these amazing studio sessions that give us a taste of Brian’s creative process. Sounds would naturally come out of his head that he wanted to replicate on the seminal ‘Pet Sounds’ album. Remember too that this is even before the Beatles entered their psychedelic stage of creativity. It shows Brian having fun recording dogs’ barking and even using bobby pins to create a unique sound off of the piano keys.
The editing is flawless and some of the best use of flashbacks on film. As Brian experiments with LSD, Dano falls victim to alcohol, drugs and obesity. Dano even gained a pot belly to physically depict Brian’s mental breakdown. There’s a telling shot of Dano sitting at the edge of the swimming pool looking bloated and defeated. In the third act, the film shifts to a thriller as Brian’s girlfriend Melinda tries to help him break free from the manipulative psychiatrist Dr. Landy. Giamatti’s performance is scary as he dons a wig and menacing control over his patient. The story becomes a fight for Brian to desperately regain his life. ‘Love and Mercy’ is ultimately a story about a man’s fight for redemption and Pohlad crafts it into an unforgettable biopic. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/OpGVVvkxjhI.