Movie Review: Love & Mercy

The film is as much a poetic homage to the love of music as well as pop icon Brian Wilson — and should be experienced on the big screen.

click to enlarge SWEET HARMONIES: Paul Dano (center) as young Brian Wilson in the studio with Brett Davern as brother Carl in Love & Mercy. - FRANCOIS DUHAMEL
SWEET HARMONIES: Paul Dano (center) as young Brian Wilson in the studio with Brett Davern as brother Carl in Love & Mercy.

Love & Mercy
Opens Fri., June 5, at AMC Westshore, AMC Woodland Square 20, Regal Waterford Lakes, Muvico Sundial 18 & IMAX and Park Place Stadium 16
Stars Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti

Love & Mercy paints a loving, impressionistic portrait of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Named for his 1988 solo comeback album, the film captures two periods of personal and artistic awakening in the musical genius' life — the Pet Sounds period (and little afterward) and the end of his middle-aged, doctor-prescribed isolation years.

With an effectively non-linear narrative by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner (with input from Wilson, who also gets a writing credit), we get to know the icon through the stirring performances of not one, but two actors. John Cusack sounds and acts just like the music guru, conveying his childlike sweetness and moments of rebellious mischief without lapsing into caricature. Paul Dano, as young Wilson, pretty much steals the movie. He movingly conveys the tortured and exuberantly experimental Wilson as he masterminds one of the best albums of all time, and begins to realize signs of mental illness.

Director Bill Pohlad, as in his previous films (12 Years a Slave, Into the Wild and Brokeback Mountain) reveals once again a measured but ultimately gut-socking dispatch of emotion.

Pohlad also gets a lot from Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti, who co-star in Wilson's latter-life story. Banks plays Melinda, the woman Wilson falls in love with and is still married to today, and Giamatti is Wilson's Svengali-like shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy. Banks conjures the frustrations, doubts and fears of Wilson's girlfriend as she tolerates being accompanied by bodyguards and his shrink, chaperoned everywhere they go. Banks shows impressive range as a tough but sweetly accepting companion, offering a combination of vulnerability and guts we don't see often in female roles. Giamatti is convincing as the overbearing, egomaniacal psychiatrist. He deftly humanizes his antagonist by letting us in on his decades-long, dysfunctional devotion to Wilson.

Even minor roles are rendered without feeling throw-away. Jake Abel's Mike Love comes across as a prick but has his moments too. The affection of the brothers and cousins in the band, despite their frustrations is palpable, and the chemistry between Banks and Cusack is likewise endearing.

As Wilson would have it, Love & Mercy's biggest selling point is its sound. The swells, the random instruments and noises, and luscious harmonies, all re-created by sound designer Atticus Ross. His score captures some of America's greatest pop music along with the soundtrack of Brian Wilson's wondrous and often tortured mind.

The film sweeps you away and plays out like a five-star epic of poetic filmmaking up until the last 20 minutes, when it starts to feel a little rushed and less fleshed out. Perhaps Wilson wanted some scenes removed. No matter, it is great as it is without over-explaining or rehashing the more embarrassing moments of Wilson's career, of which there were plenty.

A visual and aural banquet, Love & Mercy gives anyone who has more than a passing regard for music history the backstage pass of a lifetime — into one of pop music's most influential, if not most influential, recording sessions. Pohlad reveals Wilson's intimate and serendipitous moments as he conducts and arranges the music for Pet Sounds, offered with a documentary-like, behind-the scenes cinematography (by Robert D. Yeoman, Grand Budapest Hotel) that effectively mirrors the wonderment and excitement of both Pet Sounds and its brilliant composer.

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