Love and Mercy (2015)

Final Rating: 9.4/10

Not since The Social Network have we had a biopic that has felt so little like one. The Social Network knowingly fabricated a lot of its story to create a better film, and this is widely acknowledged. Love and Mercy, however, may have been so close to its source that some of it may even be downplayed. It is a story about The Beach Boys and it is even a psychological drama, but it isn’t exclusively either. For any non fans, Love and Mercy will be a harrowing tale of a talent whose powers were unrecognized or, the opposite, used and abused. It is a story of how one’s wandering mind may wander too much, and how childlike innocence will be tarnished by adult cynicism and hatred.

For fans of this group, Love and Mercy is a rivetting movie that will likely get you to tear up. If you aren’t shaken by how ugly Brian Wilson’s illness got, you will be catastrophically moved by the studio recording sessions. Seeing Wilson smack a drum to prelude the session for I’m Waiting For The Day gave me a shiver, a wide set of eyes and a gaping mouth. We all know that Pet Sounds is a work of genius, but to see the closest representation of Wilson at work as a modern Mozart, quirk and youthfulness and such, is astounding. Hearing such classics develop in Wilson’s cluttered mind and seeing these thoughts be birthed within the confinement of a recording studio was an absolute gift director Bill Pohlad has given us.

So much about Love and Mercy was refreshing, too. For a biopic, it’s unusual to get shots close up and right behind the heads of the actors. The jump between a gorgeously shot world of back then to a grainy environment that resembles that very world we know only through recordings and memories was a nice touch. These faux recordings are truly special because of how eerily well they replicate the moments they are mimicking. I mean, how real is the opening montage? At times, I was darting my gaze to the faces of the Beach Boys to remind myself that this is just a replication.

The leads also made this a likely outcome. Paul Dano and John Cusack were near perfect choices for the younger and older Brian Wilson, respectively. Dano slowly goes deranged and the weight of his father’s strictness, his band mate Mike Love’s negativity and the world (both commercial and critical) visibly pulls his brain so far that each thought has to take time to escape from  the core of his mind. Cusack’s Wilson is already far gone. He is twitchy, frail within his face and permanently wincing. I am not sure which performance is more depressing: The slow decline we are witnessing or the sick man we didn’t even get a chance to fully get to know before he was plagued. It was wise to separate both the old and young Brian Wilson, because it made us all the more interested as to how he got there.

We never get a clear cut response, either. It was maybe for the best that we didn’t see Wilson’s absolute rock bottom, because we have seen the man get tortured enough. It would have been unbearable to see such an innocent and humble artist go through than much more than we saw. We had Paul Giamatti as Wilson’s doctor Eugene Landy, who is an absolute monster that holds Wilson captive for his own means. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter who ends up being the medicine Wilson needed all along: A reminder of what it means to smile. Both Giamatti and Banks are ferocious as Wilson’s fighting brain and heart. Jake Abel as Mike Love was a surprise, and there were moments where Abel commands the tone of the scene. We truly feel like Wilson when either Giamatti or Abel are causing him to cower in a corner.

Love and Wilson’s father are apparent villains, but we get entirely where they sre coming from. Pet Sounds is seen as a classic now. During the recording process, such a risk is a frightening declaration of where one’s future may head. Wilson’s father’s abuse has absolutely no excuse worthy enough to justify what he did, keep in mind. It is worth noting that both Brian and his father had the same addiction for perfectionism; His father expelled it with anger and Brian used love instead. Either way, his father’s drastic ways parrallel Brian’s, just without the kindness and caring.

To see Pet Sounds get created was a pleasure. To see Smile get destroyed was a devastation. Both albums are two of thr most beautiful you will ever have the fortune of hearing, and it was thanks to one man who was challenged by the world. He was challenged by The Beatles to make a cohesive album (he ended up hearing Revolution 9 everywhere instead of something more joyful). He was challenged by his family who wanted success and not legacy. He was challenged by a doctor who wanted him for his own use. He was challenged by a mind that too many people, themselves, challenged.

He was finally challenged by the very kind of love he always wanted. Love and Mercy represents a man who wanted to give the world musical joy and was battered for doing so. He wanted to be remembered and not processed and spit back out. That album he never finished until he went solo? Smile? It’s been pieced together as well as possible and can be listened to as of a few years ago. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. Now understand how different music may have been had Smile been released back then instead of the flop-pop counterpart Smiley Smile. Through Pohlad’s bold direction, Atticus Ross’s beautiful nightmare of a soundtrack, incredible cinematography and a line up of big performances, Love and Mercy is another reminder of what could have been. It is a powerful movie, a daring recollection and an emotional explosion. It is one of the strongest films this year, whether you are a fan of the band or not.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.