Love & Mercy

| September 21, 2015

The film Love & Mercy portrays two very distinct eras in Brian Wilson’s life: One showing the incredible composer and songwriter creating legendary music in early 1960s California, and the other depicting a mentally ill man two decades later combatting hallucinations and paranoia. Paul Dano plays the younger Brian Wilson at the apex of The Beach Boys’ successful career, writing the songs for the now-famous album Pet Sounds. John Cusack takes on the role 20 years into the future, where an overmedicated and depressed Brian attempts to take on a romance with car saleswoman Melinda, played affectionately by Elizabeth Banks.

Love & Mercy tells the Brian Wilson story with a lot of charm and a little melancholy. The musical genius that is past Brian avoids touring with the band to create what he hopes to be breakthrough music for their next album. He works in his studio with orchestral musicians, having them experiment with their instruments to create very different sounds, all the while trying to overcome his auditory hallucinations that are beginning to take control. Meanwhile, future Brian is dealing with the death of his brother and drummer of The Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson. He has a dysfunctional relationship with his controlling psychiatrist, and at the same time is enjoying a surprisingly healthy relationship with the woman who would eventually become his wife.

The remarkable moments in Love & Mercy are when the younger Brian, played by Dano, creates his music. A meeker rendition of “God Only Knows” with solo voice and piano accompanied by a tense and sad scene between Brian and the band’s former manager, his father, who, in his indignation over being fired, claims the song is no good. Later in the studio, one of the most orchestrally complex and harmonically exciting pop songs ever written gets a beautiful visual treatment from director Bill Pohlad. The song gets built from the ground up in an awesome cinematic moment. The musicians really play their instruments and the rehearsal sounds like a genuine studio rehearsal, with wrong notes, uneven rhythms, and often confused looking faces.

Elizabeth Banks is the standout in her rather heroic role as Melinda Ledbetter, a woman who falls in love with Brian and attempts to understand his illness as well as his treatment. Paul Dano’s and John Cusack’s very different portrayals of Brian Wilson work well together in a film that seems to relish in its dichotomy. The writing is, at times, obvious, seeming to talk down to an audience who may or may not know that The Beach Boys were in an undeclared competition with The Beatles to make the top charting music in the 60s, or that Brian Wilson’s genius could be compared to someone like Mozart. Yet in no way does this take away from the film’s overall beauty. Love & Mercy tells the story of a sweet man who creates music that is out of this world, and is rescued from a dangerous situation by the woman he loves.

About the Author:

Kylah Magee received an MA in film studies from Chapman University and a music degree from Texas State. She has worked with the LA Film Festival and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. She owns and operates Nine Muses Studio where she teaches private voice lessons in Austin, TX.
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