Paralleling pivotal chapters in the life of the Beach Boy, Love & Mercy’s biopic of troubled genius musician Brian Wilson has more in common with Scorsese’s The Aviator than Walk the Line or Ray.Drawing a late career-high performance from John Cusack, who has actually spent far too much time in the DTV doldrums recently, and another impressive turn from Paul Dano, film producer Bill Pohlad’s sophomore directorial effort (although it feels more like a debut, as he hasn’t made a film in some 25 years) crafts an intense and intriguing look at the life of this musical genius.We follow – in awe and shock – as he engages with his popular siblings, struggles with the hearing damage done by one too many beatings to the head, gets overwhelmed by the strange noises which appear to be coming more from inside his head than outside, and channels his atypical musical thought processes into original harmonies which would go on to become seminal all-time greats.
Blended with a later timeline, this early heyday for Brian and his siblings – where his mental health first starts to become an issue – is keenly juxtaposed with his later 80s life under the control of a manipulative ‘doctor’ (played, in suitably over-the-top fashion, by Paul Giamatti). In this period he falls in love again, with Melinda, a car saleswoman (played warmly by Elizabeth Banks) who is shocked to discover the ‘treatment’ that he is receiving from his supposed doctor.
Part The Aviator, part Whiplash, and often all-genius, Love & Mercy may not be as powerful as its siblings but it’s still warm, touching and well-made.
Wilson’s recording of the musical score for tracks like God Only Knows and Good Vibrations provide a highlight for the Dano-era, whilst Cusack’s vulnerability in the face of a raging Giamatti lights up the second arc. And with a tremendous score by long-term Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor collaborator, Atticus Ross, which utilises original Beach Boys tape stems and provides a suitably discordant accompaniment to the highs and lows of the narrative, Love & Mercy may not trade in the utmost historical – or musical – accuracy, but it provides an insightful and often harrowing look at the life and work of Brian Wilson and thus the Beach Boys in general.
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