Love & Mercy is a film about Brian Wilson’s musical genius. It is also a film about his emotionally troubled life. Above all, it is a glorious tale of survival. The story of his early breakdown and years of abuse, first under this tyrant father Murry, and then under the control of his live-in psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy, is no secret, but the degree of abuse will surprise even those familiar with the facts.
Everyone knows that Brian Wilson was primarily responsible for the early success of the Beach Boys. His songwriting, arranging and singing was the musical voice of early 1960s America, but even he grew tired of the beach, summer and car themes of the hit songs. In the film, both his father and lead vocalist Mike Love, repeatedly grew tired of the creative but less commercial direction Brian’s music is taking the group. Brian hears symphonies in his head, new arrangements and more challenging musical horizons. He is trying to create a dynamic new concept album, to create in the studio what he is hearing in his head, but the results are creating friction with the band and testing his own self-confidence. When his dream project collapses, Brian suffers a prolonged nervous breakdown. The years of being a recluse, drug abuse and living under the heavy medical hand of Dr. Eugene Landy are well documented.
The film structure alternates between his mid 1960s work and the period in the 1980s when he met his second wife and how she helped him to free him from Landy. The young Brian (future Brian in the credits) is exquisitely played by Paul Dano, capturing the awkward genius of the growing storm inside of Brian Wilson’s head. The older, or future Brian as the character is listed in the credits, is portrayed by John Cusick, who’s manic and quirkiness reveal a scared and lonely man who is isolated by everything except Landy.
Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, does a solid job as Brian’s girlfriend and future wife. The role of Melinda is pivotal to the story and one can imagine the creative influence the real Melinda had in making the film, since the filmmakers actively sought the input and approval of the Wilsons in making the film. She is credited in the film as being the driving force behind freeing Brian from Dr. Landy, with some unspecified help from brother Carl Wilson. You have to see the film to understand the depth of the control and abuse Brian suffered at the hands of Landy, who manage to worm his way into role of co-songwriter, legal guardian, controller of the medication, and sought to be named as beneficiary in Brian’s will. Paul Giamatti, is wonderful as the domineering psychiatrist, the man you love to hate.
The film gives never shows and rarely mentions Brian’s mother, only concentrating on the iron hand of physical and emotionally abusive father Murry Wilson. The film begins after Murry has been fired as the Beach Boy’s manager and this only intensifies his rage and putdown of his son, who is dangling dangerously on the edge of a complete breakdown. Brian continues to seek the approval of his cold father, who in one scene dismisses the potential of Brian’s working version of future hit “God Only Knows.” In a final act of revenge, Murry Wilson sells the publishing rights to the Beach Boy’s songs without Brian’s knowledge saying the Beach Boys have peaked and will have no value in the future. You can see the growing doom settle over Brian.
Unfortunately you never really understand the relationship between Brian and his brothers, they merely stand in the background of the film. Mike Love is portrayed as boorish, interested only in the past commercial formula and seemingly uninterested in the downward flight of the group’s leader.
Director Bill Pohlad has done a marvelous job of blending together different periods and in his crosscutting style of storytelling. He does an effective job of taking the viewer inside the studio process and of exposing the genius and turmoil inside of Brian Wilson. This is a finely crafted film, especially in visual style and sound editing. The studio sequences showing recording the “Pet Sounds” album and the multi-textured masterpiece hit “Good Vibrations” are magical to watch.
If you lived through the time of the Beach Boys or just want to experience what creative genius looks like, this film has something big to offer. It is also a very sad film. Thankfully, the film skips the process of untangling Dr. Landy and ends on a happy note. This isn’t a feel good movie nor is it one of those over-dramatized bio pics of celebrity tragedy. If you want feel good, visit one of the high concept summer films with CGI and comic book heroes. Brian Wilson is not a hero but he is a troubled musical genius. Seeing that genius in action is worth the price of admission.