“Love & Mercy” Movie Review

    It’s amazing how you can go your entire childhood listening to “The Beach Boys” on your dad’s 8 track player, and yet never having been told of the intriguing backstory of the group’s lead singer, Brian Wilson, as depicted in “Love & Mercy”.  Directing his first feature in well over two decades, Bill Pohlad has successfully blended together an emotional retelling of Wilson’s struggle with mental illness that began in the 1960s and left him in a tailspin as he grew older, becoming only a shell of his former self.  I suppose it’s not surprising to find out the mastermind behind such a consistently unique sound was not exactly all there.  People often wondered at the time if groups such as “The Beatles” achieved their out of this world melodies while tripping out on LSD, and to an extent, “The Beach Boys” also benefitted from unmistakeable audio cues that were as fresh and original as anyone had heard at the time.  As we learn in “Love & Mercy”, this was achieved by way of Brian Wilson’s unique methods in extracting the thoughts in his mind and translating those thoughts by way of both musical instruments and the fact they were being played in a nontraditional manner.

     In one of the great two actor performances in recent memory where one character is portrayed during two different junctures in his life, Paul Dano and John Cusack bring a certain authenticity and emotional credence to the multi era role of which Pohlad and his collaborators have weaved together masterfully.  Dano, you may recall, made his mark with two agonizing roles in which he played the would be and subsequently tortured kidnapper in Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” and followed that up with a turn as an evil slave owner in Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave”.  Here, he is cast perfectly as Brian’s younger self where the group, and Brian in particular, are in search of their next big album and new sound.  We soon understand some of the cause of Brian’s budding disease, as he is constantly tormented by his father who even after the group’s rousing success, still pushes Brian for more and continually puts down even his best efforts.

     All of this takes a toll, and by the early 1980s, Brian, now portrayed by Cusack with brilliance equal to Dano, lives under the tightly wound care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) in the family’s Malibu beach home.  Early in the film, Brian (Cusack) walks into a Cadillac dealership intent on buying a car.  He is greeted by a sales person named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and requests she join him in one of the showroom vehicles for a chat.  Melinda has no idea who Brian is, but her kind and calming demeanor seems to keep Brian at ease, as his true innocence and personality begin to shine through when he’s with her.  As it turns out, this is the beginning of a relationship between the two, but as they both find out, there are several roadblocks in place that seem hell bent on keeping them apart.

     The thrust of the 1980s portion of the story centers around Dr, Landy and his controversial diagnosis of Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic.  At some point, it seems the family bought into the diagnosis and became content with allowing Landy to both live with Brian and have complete control over his affairs.  Soon, it becomes apparent to Melinda that Landy is over medicating Brian in order to never fully allow him to be lucid enough to realize he is being taken advantage of.  Pohlad continues to blend the two eras together seamlessly, as we see Brian continue to unravel in the 80s, we are quickly brought back to the 60s and a series of recording sessions that took place while the band toured without their lead singer internationally.  It was at this time, Brian conjured up the music and instrumentals for the groovy hit “Good Vibrations” and we see the painstaking process in which he attempts to get a series of accomplished musicians to create the exact sound he intends for the song.  As shot and composed by Pohlad, you get the nostalgic feeling of a truly landmark moment in music.

     “Love & Mercy” succeeds in nearly every area last year’s Clint Eastwood directed “Jersey Boys” seemed to fail.  Absent are the overly melodramatic scenes that seemed to only serve the purpose of getting the audience to the next musical performance which did little to separate the film from the stage play it was based on.  Believe it or not, the music of “The Beach Boys” is not the real star of “Love & Mercy” and barely even registers as a backdrop.  Instead, Pohlad concentrates on what is a very touching human story about a musical genius who struggled mightily with his relationships both because of his mental issues, but also because he continually strived to be great.  For her part, Elizabeth Banks is a pleasure to watch in her role as Melinda, expertly playing off of Cusack’s very nuanced and soft spoken performance as they both play their characters with the kind of restraint necessary to keep the film from delving into parody.  Pohlad is also backed by a superior production design, selling both the colorful, yet bland setting of 1960s recording studios, as well as the gas guzzling Reagan era 1980s filled with giant Cadillacs and modern beach houses soaked in blacks and grays that seem to fit the mood of the lead characters.  Overall, we are definitely looking at 2015’s first surefire Oscar contender.  I wouldn’t be surprised to be hearing about “Love & Mercy”, as well as its talented cast, again come January when awards season begins. GRADE: A-