Skewed vibrations: Love & Mercy for Brian Wilson

Love & Mercy captures Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson at two distinct points in time: Paul Dano plays him at the peak of his Pet Sounds powers, while John Cusack portrays the older, mentally damaged Wilson in desperate need of salvation. David Roy evaluates Bill Pohlad's musical biopic

Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy (12A, 122mins)

Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti

Director: Bill Pohlad


BILL Pohlad's Brian Wilson biopic takes an interesting approach to the troubled Beach Boys genius by chopping up two distinct periods of his eventful life and weaving them together in an episodic manner.

We begin with 'Brian – Past', a Wilson in his early 20s as convincingly inhabited by a shaggy-haired Paul Dano: a man determined to take his already hugely successful band of brothers and cousin (and Al Jardine) on a sonic journey through the weird and wonderful sounds he's determined to get out of his head and on to "the best record ever made", Pet Sounds.

This is Wilson at the peak of his considerable musical powers but also teetering atop a slippery, strange-voices-in-my-head-carved slope that will eventually plunge him into full-blown mental illness (and gross obesity) and leave him vulnerable to unscrupulous opportunists.

The young Beach Boy craves the approval of cruel and unusual dad Murry (Bill Camp), recently sacked as the band's manager, and locks horns with bandmate and cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), whose straight-laced 'stick to the formula, stupid' sensibilities are increasingly at odds with Brian's 'far out' songwriting and recording ideas.

We soon meet 'Brian – Future' too, John Cusack's authentically shell-shocked depiction of Wilson's middle-aged years as a divorced, prescription-drug-dependant damage case in the 1980s.

This Wilson is still reeling from the death of his brother Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and, having become estranged from his family, has somehow become clenched in the sweaty, controlling fist of reptilian physician/therapist/bloodsucker Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and entourage.

Luckily, their dubious motives are almost immediately called into question by saintly yet sexy car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) – the future second Mrs Brian Wilson – with whom he enjoys a meet cute in the luxurious cabin of a Cadillac Fleetwood AKA 'The Cadillac of Tomorrow', for those of you who are into the whole symbolism trip.

While the music-loaded scenes with studio-bound 'Brian-Past' as he struggles to beat The Beatles at their own psychedelic game are skillfully realised and fun to watch, it's the often harrowing story of how Melinda battled to rescue the lost soul Wilson would become 30 years hence which provides the film's emotional thump.

Pohlad's original vision for the film was to include the bed-ridden 'Brian-Present' of the mid-1970s in the narrative, but this era's messy mix of booze, drugs, depression, over-eating and eventual divorce would likely have bogged the movie down too much.

With this period safely excised bar a couple of scenes glimpsed in flash-back, we can get on with enjoying the effective 'fall and rise'-shaped narrative he and writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman have crafted from Wilson's exploits in the 60s and 80s.

Although the film has the neatly rounded-off, lawyer-approved feel of the officially authorised production it is, Love & Mercy – named for the tune on his 1988 'comeback' solo LP that's performed by the real Brian Wilson and band over its end credits – is still an engrossing watch enlivened by high production values (the attention to period detail is excellent throughout) committed performances by its pair of leading men and, of course, the wealth of Beach Boys tunes on its soundtrack.

Given some of the darker moments in Brian's life, this was never going to be a fun fun fun movie: however, for the most part, its carefully crafted tale of heroes and villains offers plenty of good vibrations that Beach Boys fans in particular should enjoy soaking up.

:: Love & Mercy is at QFT Belfast and on general release from today.


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