Brian Wilson has a tortured soul. Much of his life had abuse from one source or another. His greatest tormentor was his father, Murry.
The backdrop of an abusive father informs Love & Mercy, a powerful biopic on the life of the leader of the Beach Boys.
What Love & Mercy does well is not to give us the whole story of Brian’s life. Instead it focuses on two unique time periods. In the first Brian is played powerfully by Paul Dano. In this period Brian tells his band mates he does not want to tour any longer but wants to work in the studio producing for the group. This puts the focus on Brian’s creation of Pet Sounds, considered to be a pop masterpiece.
The second period is in the 1980s when Brian is under the domination of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). In this period Brian is played by John Cusack, who plays Wilson full of doubts and ticks, showing the signs of overmedication by Landy. We see Brian meet Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and the struggle the two have to form a relationship.
As we watch the Brian in the ’60s, we see the genius of his mind. By taking and arranging and adding different sounds to his music we see the greatness of his gift as a musician. The studio musicians he uses declare that this work is the best they have ever seen.
But when the band gets back from tour, lead singer Mike Love (Jake Abel) begins tearing down what Brian has created and declares it worthless.
Coming in to hear what Brian’s music is his father (Bill Camp). Murry tells Brian that his work is useless and that what his songs sound like is more of a suicide note than a love song. At one point, Murry tells Brian that in 20 years no one would know Brian or any of the his music.
In the ’80s, we discover that Landy has control of every aspect of Brian’s life. He has escorts who trail Brian on dates with Melinda. She becomes convinced that Landy is crazier than Brian. There has to be a separation between these two if Brian is going to get better. But there is a huge problem: she has no legal standing to break apart this abusive relationship.
Love & Mercy works well with this divide-decade storytelling. What we see is the toil of the abuse that Brian received and how that abuse was meted out. One of the shocking things older Brian tells Melinda is he has little or no hearing in his right ear. His father struck him so many times as a child that his hearing was lost.
What makes this movie great is how we get to see inside the genius of Brian. We see how he creates the music that we know so well.
Credit for the greatness of the movie resides in the work of actor Dano. He emotes in ways that you see the struggle of being Brian and how Brian would fold when the least amount of pressure gets placed upon him. Dano should get an Oscar nomination for this role.
On a larger scale, we get to see the horror that was Brian’s life. When we weigh the terrible pain he endures with the “Fun, Fun” of his music, it is hard to reconcile.
What I walked away with is a deep appreciate for Brian’s gift, but also sadness. It is sad to see how much of his self was lost because of the abuse he endured and how he tried to fix himself early on through self-medication, then through a bad choice of a caregiver.
What masterpieces of music were lost because Brian Wilson retreated within himself for all those years and was not capable of making music? That is why this is such a tragic story.
Love & Mercy
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner
With: Elizabeth Banks (Melinda Ledbetter), John Cusack (Older Brian), Paul Dano (Younger Brian), Paul Giamatti (Eugene Landy), Jake Abel (Mike Love), Bill Camp (Murry Wilson)