Love & Mercy

A musical genius falls and rises

With so many people wasting their time (sorry, just my opinion) on flimsy entertainment like Jurassic World, let me point you to a recent film of Love&Mercysubstance called Love & Mercy (hard to find fault with a title like that).

I was never a huge fan of the Beach Boys, but I enjoyed many of their songs and owned three or four of their albums back in the day (in the ’70s; the ’60s were before my time, which is partly why I wasn’t a huge fan). While I had heard vague rumors over the years about Brian Wilson, the lead singer and songwriter for the Beach Boys, I knew very little of Wilson’s story before watching Love & Mercy.

Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, is based on Wilson’s life, but it’s not a typical biopic. There is no attempt here to tell the story of Wilson’s life. Rather, Love & Mercy tells Wilson’s story in two essential time periods: the mid-1960s, when the Beach Boys were one of the hottest groups around, and the late 1980s, when we see what has become of Wilson in the two decades following what was generally described as a series of nervous breakdowns. The film moves back and forth between the time periods, telling each story chronologically, though it isn’t always clear how much time has passed between the scenes of each story, something I found a little frustrating.

The older Wilson is played brilliantly by John Cusack (possibly the best performance of his career). Constantly shadowed by a sleazy and overbearing psychotherapist named Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti), Wilson is taking a variety of drugs and struggling with depression when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who will change his life.

Meanwhile, the younger Wilson is played (also brilliantly) by Paul Dano. We watch in awe as the young Wilson struggles to express the musical genius within after the incredible rise of the Beach Boys to fame and fortune in the early ’60s. The young Wilson is also plagued by an overbearing man—his father, Murry (Bill Camp), which no doubt contributed to his struggles. But Wilson seems to feel that none of those closest to him understands what he’s doing.

We watch in awe as the young Wilson struggles to express the musical genius within after the incredible rise of the Beach Boys to fame and fortune in the early ’60s.

In both stories, we see amazingly compassionate portrayals of Wilson’s psychological problems. It can be very hard to watch at times, but it’s not played for melodrama. Particularly fascinating is to watch where the filmmakers have decided to make the cuts between the stories, adding a layer of meaning to each, especially in Wilson’s struggles.

While it’s a thrill to watch Wilson develop his great songs in the 1960s (and to listen to all those songs), I actually found the 1980s story to be more compelling. Mostly this has to do with being somewhat lost in the earlier time line, but it’s also because I found the later story especially moving, and the cinematography, which is excellent throughout, was more stable in the later story.

All the actors did well in Love & Mercy. It was nice to see the female lead, Banks, play an ordinary person for once. I prefer her in such roles (as opposed, for example, to her role in the Hunger Games films). And the film is worth watching just to see Dano and Cusack perform.

It’s sad to see such well-made films get so little attention from filmgoers, but it’s true that many viewers would not appreciate Love & Mercy’s unconventional style or the story it tells. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it, especially to those who have enjoyed listening to Wilson’s songs over the years. It’s a profound film in many ways. 


Love & Mercy is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language.