If you remember the 1960’s classic album “Pet Sounds” by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love and Mercy”.
In an unusual music biopic of Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” structures his life through two highly acclaimed actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, playing Brian the younger and middle-aged Brian respectively. In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and adult life results in the destructive behavior of his middle-age. Based on Brian Wilson’s biography, “Love and Mercy’ tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which seemed never to heal.
Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing. …How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
Melinda Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”
Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.”
And that dialog foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love and Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash”.
And, the music! Absolutely essential to evoking the time period as well as the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” also provides just enough of a hint of why Wilson is considered one of the music greats. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him. Understanding his revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his music recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals) is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however, was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.
“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws too, especially if the viewer has some awareness of the trials and tribulations of Brian’s life. In portraying the two lives of Brian Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), “Love and Mercy” sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a much bigger story that is left without important detail. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Brian Wilson’s family, who were sometimes jealous and manipulative themselves, intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation to help? Who finally brought the legal challenge to Landy’s charlatan therapy and guardianship of Brian? His father delivers several abusive encounters but we are left wanting more background. What about his mother?
Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to be a classic not only for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. Just as “Good Vibrations” was Brian Wilson’s biggest hit, “Love and Mercy” is a paean to the former glory of the once incomparable Brian Wilson.