Love and Mercy movie review

Featuring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 25 Jun

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving biopic. A must-see for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans.

I’m generally luke-warm about biopics, especially those on revered pop and rock musicians (trace that back to the buffoonish depiction of Jim Morrison by Val Kilmer at the direction of a clueless Oliver Stone in his unintended parody, The Doors). Thus, I approached this portraiture of Brian Wilson, who for me is one of the truly great songwriter/arrangers of the 60s, with trepidation.

No need, as it turns out.

This is a terrific flick that pays due but not sycophantic homage to Wilson’s artistic achievements and provides marvellous insight into the fascinating and whacko creative processes that yielded his best work circa the landmark Pet Sounds masterpiece (and, of course, the legendary Smile album follow-up, still one of rock’s fabled lost treasures, despite Wilson’s unfortunate latter-day release of a recreated and inevitably disappointing version).

That comes across as a description of a doco rather than a biopic, but the best part of this always riveting movie really is the marvellously authentic-feeling depiction of Wilson’s Pet Sounds studio sessions working with crack hired session musos (later known collectively as The Wrecking Crew, and acknowledged as the hitmakers behind the scenes on so many classic 60s records). While the other members of the Beach Boys watch on, some with growing frustration and impatience at being denied an opportunity to participate musically, Brian directs and pushes the expert hired help to coax into reality the sounds and musical ideas in his head. As those gorgeous and oh-so-familiar songs come together, sounds, layers and textures are revealed in stunning clarity absent from the soft-focus mix of the commercially available vinyl product and the later digital remasters. No Beach Boys fan will want to miss this. It’s nothing short of revelatory.

That music-centred rave aside, the film also works extremely well dramatically, partly due to the wise decision to cover only two periods of Wilson’s life – his creative peak around 1967, when in his twenties he shunned the stage limelight to focus on songwriting, and his painful journey out of darkness, mental collapse and exploitation two decades later. The intervening years, during which he was in a sorry state, are only alluded to – a narratively economical and canny strategy.

Paul Dano plays the young Wilson and John Cusack takes on the middle-aged role. Both are convincing. Dano is a dead ringer for 60s era Wilson, but Cusack looks nothing like the older version in real life. While this is initially jarring, Cusack’s depiction seamlessly melds with Dano’s and the appearance discrepancy soon fades into insignificance. That is a tribute to both performers, who combine to bring the Wilson character to life, not as a 60s icon, but as a man whose life has turned tragic, and who struggles with the damage inflicted on him by a physically and mentally abusive father.

This sad family history makes Wilson ripe pickings for tyrannically controlling and self-serving Machiavellian shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who overmedicates his “patient” and watches his every move, pulling his strings like an evil puppeteer. Wilson’s chance meeting with empathic car salesperson Melinda (played with poise and suss by Elizabeth Banks), who was to become his second wife, leads to an unlikely friendship, then love, and paves the way for his breaking out of his cage of oppression. Melinda’s facing down of Landy towards the end of the film is the dramatic high point. Who doesn’t love to see a bully get his comeuppance?

This is a beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving flick about a damaged and gifted person who finds a way back from the hell of mental disintegration to liberation and redemption through the support and love of a good woman (don’t smirk – that’s how it is, and you’ll buy it as I did!). Highly recommended, and for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans an absolute must-see.

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