Love and Mercy is a biopic that follows the turbulent early and midlife of Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys.
The director, Bill Pohlad, flips effortlessly back and forth between the 60’s and the 80’s. Paul Dano portrays the mid-sixties Wilson brilliantly. He transforms from the fun loving energetic young Beach Boy into a frustrated mentally tortured artist that loses his way musically and mentally. John Cusack nicely underplays the mid-eighties Wilson, who has lost his way and is suffering through a mental meltdown. The heart of both tales is of a Beach Boy who’s caught in an undercurrent, trying desperately to make it to the surface for air.
Dano’s 60’s Wilson concentrates on the years that he composed Pet Sounds and Smile. He masters all of Wilson’s mannerisms, playing the piano and singing most of the music in the film in much the same way as Wilson. The Pet Sounds studio session scenes show Wilson’s amazing ability to coordinate the musicians and translate the soundscape in his head into an album. While concentrating on one of these soundscapes, one of the session musicians tells him that they have played with all the greats – Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis – but Wilson is somehow separate, touched.
But while some see it as Genius, his family sees it as illness, and his world starts to unravel at this time. Smile was shelved because the rest of the band felt it strayed to far from the Beach Boys’ sound. Instead, they took the lead of their caustic father, and sought to continue the doo-wop sound, afraid of the direction that Wilson wanted to take them in. Finally released in 2011, Smile received much deserved, and belated critical praise. It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t see his vision through to the end forty years earlier.
One thing of note is the visual metaphors throughout the Love and Mercy. The swimming pool at Wilson’s beach house is associated heavily with his spiral into mental illness; as he loses control of his personal and professional life, he finds himself submerged deeper and deeper within the pool. At the start, he laughs off the idea that he’s going crazy and pratfalls into the pool and easily swims over the troubled waters.
Later on, while seated poolside, he’s given several tablets of LSD, which at least temporarily, serve to cheer him up. Further down the road, he submerges himself in the pool, fully clothed, looking up at the surface, wondering if when he comes up everything will be all right. And, by the time the Band starts to break up, he’s futilely treading water in the deep end, pleading that the rest of the band join him. The last scene with Dano’s Wilson, is of a scared a young man, bundled up in towels, admitting that he may be losing it.
Flash forward twenty years, and Cusack’s Wilson is on the bottom of the pool wanting to get to the surface. At this point his life is under the control of a psychologist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, who controls all facets of his life: Constant chaperoning—either by Landy or a bodyguard—how much he eats, and who he is allowed to associate with. It’s at this time that Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter—who would become his second wife—played empathetically by Elizabeth Banks. Ledbetter was a Cadillac sales lady and their first meeting takes place inside a showroom model; He talks to her like a nervous boy on his first date and upon leaving he quickly writes her a note. She assumes the standard phone number, but is surprised and concerned when she reads “lonely, scared, frightened.”
She decides to start a relationship with him and realizes as it progresses how bad of an influence that Landy’s total control is having on him. Landy eventually cuts her off from Brian’s life, but she still manages to garner enough evidence of abuse to have Landy removed as Wilson’s guardian. Giamatti is scary as hell when he finds out what she’s done, pounding her locked office Door and screaming verbal abuses. He hasn’t had this kind of meltdown performance since his now famous tirade regarding Merlot in Sideways.
Love and Mercy shows all the obstacles that Wilson had to endure: years of physical abuse by his father, the disapproval of his fellow band members, the death of one of his brothers, and a mid-life controlled by a manipulative asshole. No matter how much he tries, Cusack’s Wilson can’t surface on his own. And, if I am to regard the film as true to life—Thank God Ledbetter (Banks) came to his rescue, pulled him up to the surface, and aided him in recovery, so that he could once again become the brilliant musical genius that still composes great music today. Here’s the song that the film derives its title from.