Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) grapples with his inner demons during the 1960s creation of the now-classic “Pet Sounds” album, even as the late 1980s Wilson (John Cusack) escapes the influence of the domineering Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti) with the help of protective girlfriend Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).
2015 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The dedicated Beach Boys fan has almost certainly heard a clutch of so-called “tracking sessions” during which group leader Brian Wilson, in the later months of 1965 and well into the next year, coaxes a crack set of studio musicians (later dubbed “The Wrecking Crew”) through the recording of breathtakingly imaginative instrumental tracks that became the foundation for the pivotal 'Pet Sounds' album and subsequent stand-alone “pocket symphony” single release 'Good Vibrations'.
It is surely from these recordings that the framework for the gloriously emotional, if somewhat narratively trite, Love & Mercy was constructed. John Cusack has even referred to the influence of Wilson’s methodology on these tapes in numerous interviews since the film’s premiere at last year’s Toronto festival. They’re very much worth hearing, the sound of divine inspiration at work.
Love & Mercy alternates between the recording sessions and Wilson’s two-decade later virtual imprisonment under the legal and medical spell of specious psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. It was during this period that Wilson wandered off to buy a Cadillac and developed a fragile, halting relationship with the saleswoman at the dealership, Melinda Ledbetter. Her palpable sense of wonder at meeting this vulnerable man-child and growing determination to separate him from Landy is the strongest narrative link in a chain of strong performances from Banks, Cusack (low-key), Giamatti (wild-eyed), Dano (magnificent), the young actors hired to play Wilson’s brothers/bandmates and his eventual nemesis, cousin/vocalist Mike Love (Jake Abel).
Screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner create a staccato rhythm in the early scenes of Wilson’s boundless creativity in the studio that dovetail nicely with the more laid-back exchanges between the older Wilson and Ledbetter. The Dano sequences also benefit enormously from the dense sound collages created by composer Atticus Ross and utilised by director Bill Pohlad to dramatise Wilson’s inner turmoil.
Where Love & Mercy goes out of tune, and this happens with alarming frequency as the dual narratives progress, is with the increasingly rushed screenplay. Simple declarative statements—“What will you do now?” a co-worker asks Ledbetter following a very public confrontation with Landy—give the third act the by-the-numbers feel of an old Warner Bros. biopic, and degrade the film’s aura of creative wonder.
Another odd storytelling choice: wouldn’t it be nice to know how Wilson got mixed up with Landy in the first place during his lost years of reclusiveness and bizarre behaviour? It was his first wife who hired Landy, in 1975, and his exorbitant monthly fees required brother Carl to dip into publishing royalties to cover the nut. All of this could have been done in a brief scene or montage, which would have served to satisfactorily link the two periods together.
The film’s title comes from a bonus track on Wilson’s just-released solo disc 'No Pier Pressure'. Ironically, this was meant to be a Beach Boys album until Love, who now owns the name free and clear, fired him during the recent 50th anniversary tour of a reunited version of the band (their relationship is apparently complicated to this day). Be sure and hang around until the end of the credits to see and hear the real Wilson perform the song onstage.
Is the film hagiographic in its portrayal of a vulnerable, flawed composer, musician and producer now universally considered an artistic genius? Perhaps. But if any popular music figure of Brian Wilson’s stature and influence deserves such beneficial treatment, it is surely the man from whose mind, and heart, 'Pet Sounds' flowed.