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Love & Mercy (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Graham Rogers, Bill Camp, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Jeff Meacham, Johnny Sneed and Brian Wilson.

Screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner.

Directed by Bill Pohlad.

Distributed by Roadside Attractions.  120 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

It is not a subject for debate.  Brian Wilson is both a musical genius and a deeply troubled man.

As the main songwriter and creative force behind The Beach Boys, Wilson is responsible for some of the finest, most complex music of the last century – though his abusive father Murry and later cousin Beach Boy co-hort Mike Love would try to claim credit for the sound that was not deserved.

However, the brilliant mind that created the “pocket symphonies” that jettisoned The Beach Boys to popular and critical success – songs like “California Girls,” “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” “I Get Around,” “Caroline, No” and many, many others – did not just hear beautiful music.  From a very young age, Wilson was beset with undiagnosed mental illness, hearing voices in his head, behaving erratically, alternating between euphoria and deep depression, paranoia and pathos.

It did not help matters that he was severely mistreated by the two father figures in his life.  The first of these was indeed his actual father, Murry, an abusive and frustrated music business wannabe who saw his three sons’ band as his ticket into the big time.  Murry was the epitome of the stage parent nightmare – Joe Jackson with a flattop and big, bulky glasses – and he wielded his love like a sword.

Years later, Wilson fell in with another user, Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatric “specialist” who saw Wilson as his meal ticket.  In the guise of “treating” Wilson’s paranoid schizophrenia (a diagnosis that was years later disproven), Landy kept Wilson highly medicated and underfed and quickly took complete control over his life.  Landy took legal guardianship of the musician, cut him off from family and friends, controlled his lifestyle, his diet, his social life and even his new music.

You know that a man has had it tough in life when Mike Love is only the third biggest asshole he knows.

Love & Mercy takes a look at Wilson in both of these points in his life.  He is played as a brilliantly troubled young man at the height of his career in the 1960s by Paul Dano.  Later scenes have John Cusack capture him in the midst of the Landy years of the 1980s, a well-meaning but (prescription) drug-addled and dependent has-been.

The movie flips back and forth between these two time periods, with the early scenes showing Wilson coming unraveled even as he is creating some of the finest music of his time.  The later scenes show a kinder, gentler Wilson, slightly bemused at his fame and trying to find love again with a beautiful car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) at the same time that he tries to deal with his mental illness and escape from the untenable situation he has found himself locked into.

Over the years, music bio-films have settled into something of a tried and true formula – musician fights the odds to get noticed, becoming a star, getting involved in drugs and excess that nearly destroy their career and their relationships, and finally a triumphant comeback.  While occasionally Love & Mercy slips into these formulaic moves, for the most part the movie is as offbeat and complicated as its subject.

For one thing, Love & Mercy does something that is very hard to do on screen – the film captures the pure euphoria of creating art and the beauty of artistic experimentation.  The scenes in which Wilson creates the legendary album Pet Sounds and the later aborted tapes for the long-delayed masterwork SMiLE with the studio musicians The Wrecking Crew are both fascinating and educational.  Those alone make Love & Mercy worth seeing.

Luckily, there are many more reasons than that to see the film.  Love & Mercy is the best music bio since Walk the Line or Ray, and it is arguably even better than those films.  However, fair warning, despite the fact that much of Wilson’s music is sweet and happy, this is not a light film, though it has some lighthearted parts.  It’s dark and disturbing and sweet and garish and sad and strangely beautiful.  Just like the music of the man it portrays.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: June 5, 2015.


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