The Beach Boys are a band that have always been a part of my pop music landscape. With their songs of sun, surf and teenage Californian life as a youngster living at the beach this all seemed to click. Then later Good Vibrations was clearly a pop anomaly that stood alongside the work of The Beatles in their psychedelic era – and of course what music fans hasn’t heard of the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds album.
The story behind all of this however was something new to me; there were familiar names and urban legends – who was Dr. Landy? Did Brian Wilson really spend two years in bed? How did a sandpit fit into proceedings? – so going into Love & Mercy I was intrigued to find out just what did happen and why did it take the best part of 40 years for the album SMiLE to get completed?
Bill Pohlad’s film opens with a montage ending on a brief shot of a man (Wilson) in bed before sending us back to the mid-1960s, when The Beach Boys were at the height of their powers, and 20 years later, when Wilson was a recluse under the guardianship of Dr. Landy.
Throughout Pohlad cuts between these settings telling parallel stories of the beginning of Wilson’s troubles and his the start of his eventual return.
The crossing between the two eras is very well handled and, throughout, makes perfect sense in telling its story showing many aspects of Wilson.
From a troubled youth with an abusive father (which amazingly left him all but deaf in one ear) to a troubled, creative genius in the studio in one era and a reclusive, over medicated shut in to someone taking the first steps in rediscovering themselves and the world in the other all revolving around this image of him in bed.
The 60s set scenes do a great job of evoking their era with real attention to detail, particularly in the studio session scenes, including the use of 60s era cameras and film stock, along with what look to be genuine props of the time and of course the band’s music that defined a certain portion of it.
Paul Dano is uncanny as the young Brian Wilson and does an expert job in getting across the internal strife he is undergoing, coming across variously, awkward, relatable and, as it goes on, seemingly entirely lost in his own mind.
Certainly there are parts here that condense time and come across as fictionalised for the purpose of the movie, though at no point does it feel as if the meaning and spirit is not true. As these sequences reach their crescendo Dano’s portrayal of the conflict between paranoia and creativity in Wilson is genuinely affecting.
For the 1980s sequences Love & Mercy brings out the star power with John Cusack taking on Wilson, Paul Giamatti in excellent form as Dr. Eugene Landy and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter.
While not as physically similar to Wilson as Dano, Cusack still portrays him excellently with another affecting performance that shows both the troubled paranoid young man (albeit in an older body) and the drug dependent shell of himself Landy created in a supposed attempt to cure the former Beach Boy.
Giamatti is genuinely scary but believable as Landy, portraying him as an almost cult leader-ish figure controlling every aspect of Wilson’s life which, going by accounts of the time, is entirely accurate. While Banks is our route into this story that, if it weren’t known to be true, would be almost unbelievable and really does need a civilian route in for the uninitiated.
Of course a big part of this film is the music and the studio session scenes are particularly impressive at recreating the essence of what it must have been like in the studio. Elsewhere it seems composer Atticus Ross has taken The Beach Boys and Wilson’s music and used it to create a score that entirely fits the mental state of the film’s protagonist.
Though untraditional in structure Love & Mercy uses this to tell a story unconventional even by the at times weird and wonderful world of the music industry. In doing so it is succesful both in terms of telling a true life story that is compelling for a music fan while being genuinely moving and, at times, troubling on an emotional level for any viewer – a combined feat which is undeniably impressive.