It’s only recently that I’ve understood why Brian Wilson of “The Beach Boys” is considered a genius. I mean, I’d often heard that he was, but I just didn’t understand it. As a young boy in the seventies, I recall a lot of “Beach Boys” songs that I’d hear during summer trips down at the Jersey shore, or playing at the pool snack bar at day camp. “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Surfer Girl”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around” and “California Girls”…these were the big hits. They seemed frivolous and effervescent…and even disposable. It took until I was firmly into adulthood, to learn about the groundbreaking attributes of 1966’s “Pet Sounds”, and the tumultuous life of its creator, Mr. Wilson. I certainly get it now, and “Love & Mercy” serves as the perfect instructional guide.
An exceptional Paul Dano portrays Brian Wilson as a young pop star during the 1960s sequences of the film, and John Cusack embodies Mr. Wilson as the fortysomething, unstable, medicated rocker, during scenes starting in the mid 1980’s. The 60’s stuff focuses on the superstar “Beach Boys” as they are about to embark on the production and release of the “Pet Sounds” album, which is apparently almost considered a Brian Wilson solo effort. These portions of the film show Wilson teetering between depression and anxiety, as he loses control of his weight, experiments with drugs, and battles with an aggressive and abusive father (the always dependable Bill Camp, as Murray Wilson). Intertwined with these scenes are the ones showing the two decades older, and prescription drug-addled Brian Wilson, as he meets and woos a former model, current Cadillac saleswomen named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, quite good in a role I wish was a bit more fleshed out), and attempts to defy an outlandish technique using “guru”, named Dr. Eugene Landy (a fantastic, as always, Paul Giamatti).
I greatly admired the unconventional style of this infectious chronicle. Avoiding certain music star bio standbys, “Love & Mercy” consistently shifts the time line between two different decades. And the 60’s bits are filled with amazing music, and wonderful recreations–while Mr. Dano turns in a performance that should be considered Oscar-worthy. John Cusack is not as masterful as the older Wilson, however he’s still quite good–and has the decidedly more difficult role to pull off. I loved the period flavor of the 60’s sequences, along with the acting of Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, and Graham Rogers as the other “boys” in the band. And the 80s scenes are almost completely dominated, of course, by the brilliant Paul Giamatti. Bill Pohlad makes his debut as a director here, and he’s more than adequate–while not always employing a sure hand. And the screenplay from Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman is very sharp. This is not quite a great film, but it almost gets there. And the going is good.