The sounds of “The Beach Boys” were the soundtrack of my childhood. Mom had several records that she converted into an audio tape. Sometimes at home, I would hook headphones up to our stereo system and listen to their music. Mostly, their music recalls evenings at various campgrounds in my parents trailer (there was a built in cassette deck in the wall). We would play board games and make dinner as the harmonies mixed with rock/pop floated through the small atmosphere. “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”, “Surfin Safari”, “Help Me Rhonda”, “Catch a Wave”, “Good Vibrations”, “California Girls”.
“The Beach Boys” are mostly known for surf anthems and fun pop songs. With such an often happy sound and an attitude about life revolving around cars, girls and surfing, a lot of people probably don’t know about the tormented genius that was the heart and soul of the band. Underneath the happy-go-lucky band vibe was a man wrestling the worst of his demons and succumbing to a significant amount of sadness from mental health issues.
“Love & Mercy” is the story of that genius, Brian Wilson, told interchangeably between two periods of his life. Toward the late 1960s, Wilson (played brilliantly by Paul Dano) struggles to craft his pop masterpiece, “Pet Sounds”. The other period is in the 1980s where Brian Wilson is a broken and confused and under the gaze of a suspicious therapist, Eugene Landy (the one and only Paul Giamatti). Brian Wilson in the 1980s is portrayed by John Cusack, who is always fun to watch, but here he gives his very best performance.
The Brian Wilson of the 1960s has become almost paralyzed with anxiety and stage fright. He tells his fellow brothers and band members early on that he wants to stop touring with them. He further sells this idea negotiating that he can hang around the studio and write music for their next ground-breaking album (which would become “Pet Sounds”). Eventually, he and Mike Love would write “Good Vibrations” as well. Brian has grand ambitions while experimenting with sounds that haven’t been traditionally used on rock/pop albums. This even includes bringing his dogs into the studio and recording them barking hence pet sounds.
Brian begins to write new lyrics as to which one of his fresh songs draws the ire of his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). As Brian is working out “God Only Knows” on the piano, his father calls the song wishy-washy and states that it doesn’t mean anything. Here, we see the snippets of Brian Wilson’s genius. He is troubled that love may not last forever (“I may not always love you”) but desperately wants it too (“As long as there are stars above you/ You never need to doubt it/ I’ll make you so sure about it”). He evokes the Divine (“God only knows what I’d be without you”) going back and forth on these ideas.
Not all band members are on board with his experimentation and the studio wants more “sun, sun, sun” songs. Brian, at one point, declares he is done with that specific era and wants to go deeper with his music. Clashing with studio heads, he eventually withdraws from the band. His dream “SMiLE” project is scrapped.
The 1980s version of Brian Wilson picks up seamlessly after this history. He is buying a car at a dealership when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (a fine performance from Elizabeth Banks) who doesn’t recognize who he is. She is stunned by his child-like genuineness. He opens up to this saleswoman/stranger about being haunted by the death of his brother (Dennis Wilson drowned at 39.) Randomly, he asks for a pen and paper. When his entourage comes, Ledbetter finally learns his identity, Brian Wilson of “The Beach Boys”. After they leave, she goes back to the paper and finds words scribbled on it: “Lonely, frightened, scared.”
As Ledbetter comes into Brian Wilson’s life as his girlfriend, she learns about his alienation from his brothers and family and that he hasn’t seen his daughters in years. A controversial therapist, Landy, is “taking care” of Brian but Ledbetter recognizes that something is very off and wrong here.
Ultimately, “Love & Mercy” draws on the familiar theme of “love conquers all” but the way that director Bill Pohland weaves his way through this story, everything feels fresh and original. This is a sincerely moving film.
I had a suspicion that I would like this film but now having seen “Love & Mercy”, I can comfortably declare this to be one of the best musical biopics I have ever seen and will certainly be in the top tier of films in 2015.
The film closes with a live performance by the actual Brian Wilson singing the song Love & Mercy, from his solo career, over the credits. “Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight/ Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight”.