Everybody has heard the Beach Boys, and chances are you’ve already listened to one of their ubiquitous pop tunes this summer. Yet for a band that made waves with their now classic music, things were not as smooth sailing as their melodies. Love & Mercy, the compelling new biopic about Brian Wilson, delves into the genius’ psyche and mental illness in two different decades in order to give us a picture of the man whose songs have become legendary.
Covering two major periods in Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy has Wilson portrayed by two separate actors. The first actor, Paul Dano, portrays the younger Wilson at the top of his musical success. The Beach Boys have been cranking out hits but Wilson thinks they need a new sound, and his mind just isn’t producing the catchy pop songs it once did. In this decade we see the roots of his mental illness, which is wrongly deemed as paranoid schizophrenia by doctors, but later found out to be manic-depression with a slight schizoaffective disorder in the form of auditory hallucinations. The illness is handled with care and seriousness, never making it more or less serious than it probably was. We see it both internally for Wilson and externally in how others see him coping with it. Dano delivers a powerfully convincing and heartbreaking performance as we see him fall further and further down the rabbit-hole. Dano is consistently one of the most underrated actors in his age-group and has delivered numerous performances that demonstrate his amazing range, but he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves.
For those looking for a fun Beach Boys biopic, this is probably going to be the closest you get as we see many of their hits get written and performed during their monumental success. There are magical moments as we see the mind of Wilson working out these tunes, layering the instruments, and conducting them all in his head. His new outlook on music brings about tension within the band, and these scenes carry with it an odd cinematographic choice in portraying it like a MTV Behind the Music segment in which it is shot with a handheld camera. This would not be an issue if the subject matter wasn’t so intense, but it definitely feels off considering the 80s segments are filmed normally.
Portraying Wilson in the 80s is John Cusack, who also gives a career-best performance. His Wilson has suffered the ailments for 20 years, but he also has the added torture of having a manipulating doctor, played by Paul Giamatti, who watches over him at all hours of the day. Giamatti delivers a truly cruel and maniacal performance, making us absolutely hate him in a matter of minutes. He deceives, abuses, and controls Wilson and all appears hopeless until Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) comes along and falls for Wilson. Banks is wonderfully tender and passionate in her role, and there are times when she simply just looks at Wilson and it really feels like she loves him. It is a credit to Cusack and Banks’ chemistry to pull this sort of look off, and even though it seems like an odd pairing, it works out extremely well.
Love & Mercy may not be the true biopic of the Beach Boys that everyone wants, but it is still full of good vibrations. It highlights an important issue with fantastic performances, an obviously great soundtrack, and a compelling story that will make you realize that not everything was fun in the sun for the band, resulting in a hidden gem that could surely resonate come awards season.