LOVE & MERCY (USA/12A/121mins)
Directed by Bill Pohlad. Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack,Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Jake Abel.
Based on the real life of Brian Wilson – legendary musician and founder member of The Beach Boys – Love and Mercy is not only a look at musical genius, but also an examination of power and control, and misdiagnosed mental illness.
THE VERDICT: There is little doubt that Brian Wilson has had an incredible career, and a tumultuous personal life, and for the first time, this is portrayed on the big screen in LOVE & MERCY.
Both Paul Dano and John Cusack take on the role of Brian Wilson, at different stages in his life. Dano plays Wilson during The Beach Boys years, and not only nails the look and passion of the character, but also the confusion of a man on a slow descent into undiagnosed mental illness. Dano plays Wilson as a man obsessed with music and perfection in the same, and it is perhaps this that leads to his mental troubles being ignored for so long. John Cusack takes on the role of Brian Wilson in the 1980s, when his mental struggles had been acknowledged but wildly misdiagnosed, and he was under the thumb of a controlling and bullying doctor; Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). There are times when it doesn’t feel as though Dano and Cusack are playing the same character, but when ti clicks, it truly works. Elizabeth Banks plays Melina Ledbetter, a woman who dated Brian Wilson in the 80s, only to find herself pushed away by Landy and fighting for Wilson’s autonomy. Paul Giamatti brings the creepy, overpowering and controlling Eugene Landy to life in a terrifying and calm performance. The rest of the cast is made up of Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going and Brett Davern.
The story, written for the screen by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner blends together Brian Wilson’s life in the 60s and 80s, showing his slow descent into mental illness, his strength as a musician and the personal struggles that he went through in his life. The story is carefully woven together, with single moments or lines of dialogue allowed to hint at a deeper and darker back story that is enough for the film to keep going, and for the audience to get the picture but remain curious. There is both the feeling of Lenny Abrahamson’s FRANK to the film, as well as parallels to the final years of Michael Jackson, in that Wilson is shown to be a man for whom music is his redemption, yet is under the thumb of a controlling scam artist who is more interested in making money than helping his patient.
Incredibly, LOVE & MERCY is director Bill Pohlad’s second feature behind the camera – he has an impressive career as a producer though – and he tells Wilson’s story with tact and seeming honesty. The highs of Wilson’s joy at recording Pet Sounds contrast wonderfully and heartbreakingly with his desperation to get out from under Landy’s control but being powerless to do so. The film is beautifully shot and carefully edited to give a creeping sense of fear and powerlessness.
In all, LOVE & MERCY is a careful examination of mental health, power, control and genius. Dano shines as the younger Brian Wilson, and when Cusack hits the right notes, he’s powerful. Elizabeth Banks shows her talent for drama and Giamatti is truly unnerving as Eugene Landy. Love and Mercy is one for the fans of Brian Wilson, but is carefully and wonderfully put together, to tell a story of genius and heartbreak.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Love & Mercy
Review by Brogen Hayes
  • filmbuff2011

    It’s summer – and there’s no better time to celebrate the jukebox music of The Beach Boys, known for classic hits like Surfin’ USA and Good Vibrations. Love & Mercy does a lot more than just that though. It’s a fitting tribute to the heart and soul behind this band of brothers – Brian Wilson. Told over two parallel timelines, we meet twentysomething Brian (Paul Dano) in the 1960s, having established himself and his brothers as popular musicians. Writing songs for the group has been profitable, but Brian is looking to stretch himself and the band further by singing more soulful, melodic songs. He also has to contend with an emerging mental illness. Fast forward to the 1980s and a fortysomething Brian (John Cusack) is living as a recluse of sorts, a broken man tormented by voices in his head. He meets car saleswoman Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and they begin a tentative relationship. This brings forward Brian’s doctor Eugene (Paul Giamatti), a controlling man who keeps a watchful eye at all times on Brian. He tells Melinda that Brian is a paranoid schizophrenic. With barely a moment alone with Brian, Melinda has to decide if she wants to stay with him. But does the problem lie more with Eugene and less with Brian? Coming in under the radar with minimal publicity, Love & Mercy is one of those genuine discovery films which makes the decision to go to it all the more worthwhile. This is a very fine film indeed, sensitively made by director Bill Pohlad with the greatest of respect and admiration towards his subject. Wilson is undeniably talented, but the path to his recovery was a long and difficult one. The decision to switch back and forth between timelines feels natural and unforced. It works very well, as Pohlad peels away layers of Wilson’s character as the story progresses, to get to the heart of the man. It’s interesting to learn that Dano and Cusack didn’t engage with each other in their dual portrait of Wilson, as encouraged by Pohlad. Preferring instead to bring themselves and their own interpretations to the role, it’s startling to discover how much synchronicity there is between the two performances. They feel one and the same, but embodied by two different but hugely talented actors. Banks lends strong support in a well-written role and Giamatti also makes his possessive doctor a credible figure. The period detail and the music in the film is great too, capturing the times that Wilson lived in but not getting too caught up in events outside Wilson’s world. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into this portrait of a talented but troubled man. Do yourself a favour and skip the usual summer sequels/remakes/reboots and see something with a bit more soul it. Love & Mercy comes highly recommended. ****

  • emerb

    “Love & Mercy” is a remarkably creative and multi-layered portrait of Beach Boys legend, Brian Wilson, the tortured genius and driving force behind the band’s myriad Top 40 hits. Director Bill Pohlad, working from a smart and refreshingly unconventional script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, gives us a biopic unlike most others in that it does not tell his troubled life story in full. Instead it shifts back and forth seamlessly between the ‘60’s and the ‘80’s, focussing in on two pivotal episodes in Wilson’s life and career which are vital in helping to understand the musician. The first is the mid 1960’s when The Beach Boys dominate the radio and Wilson is busy creating the now beloved “Pet Sounds” album. We follow him at the height of his career and his subsequent mental breakdown as he finds his grip on reality slowly loosening. The second
    is 20 years later, when he is recovering from a stint of intense reclusiveness and begins to court his current wife, Melinda Ledbetter. This section also explores her efforts to help him separate from Eugene Landy, the therapist upon whom he had grown dangerously dependent. This inventive and at times exhilarating movie uses two actors to trace his troubled life. Paul Dano plays Wilson at a creative peak in his younger years. We watch as this gifted genius loses his way early on and finds himself losing his grip on reality. John Cusack plays the older Wilson, a broken and confused man who cautiously begins to find himself again.

    As “Love & Mercy” opens, Paul Dano plays Wilson as an exuberant young man dedicated to his work. We move through the early days of The Beach Boys which then culminate in a severe anxiety attack he suffered on a plane while touring. In the recording studio, Wilson knows what he hears and what he is aiming for but everywhere else in life he is lost. The dark period in his life begins with his monstrous father, who was cruel and violent, professionally undermining and manipulative. Brian begins to hear scattered voices in his head, a condition first alleviated and later exacerbated by his use of LSD.

    John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson in the 1980s. His first encounter with a breezy blonde saleswoman as he walks into a Cadillac dealership introduces us to his current wife, Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The two strike up a conversation and have an immediate connection, with Ledbetter initially unsettled and then intrigued by this strangely aloof but soft spoken customer. She patiently listens as Wilson drops clues about his miserable life and he shocks her by almost casually referring to his past trauma and abuse. When he’s forced to leave abruptly, he drops a card onto the seat with the words “Lonely. Scared Frightened,” scrawled on the back.

    Wilson has allowed himself to fall into the clutches of a terrifying therapist, Landy (Paul Giamatti), who keeps him prisoner and names himself his beneficiary. A jolly, friendly man on the surface, Landy is a sinister creep who keeps Wilson living in seclusion, constantly surveilled and over medicated. Ledbetter becomes
    as much of a girlfriend as Wilson allows but her dawning realisation that Landy is slowly destroying the man she’s falling in love with complicates the relationship. She becomes instrumental in extracting him from the clutches of this monster and is the only person who can understand, love and appreciate Wilson for who he is.
    “Love and Mercy” is an intense, honest and heartrending story which keeps you engaged from start to finish. It perfectly captures the power and depth of an artist in his element. He can be fumbling for coherence, vague and lost in any other environment but becomes a master when working on his art. For me, the remarkable performances are key to the success of the film. Dano and Cusack deliver superb performances in different ways. Dano looks very like the young Wilson and perfectly captures the exuberance and anxiety of his youth with his all-encompassing desire to create, which is then followed by the pathos of his unravelling. These scenes are both tense and atmospheric. Cusack shows a slightly different but yet fully believable Wilson, he doesn’t look like him but yet he excellently depicts a damaged, guarded and fragile man who is yearning for normalcy and connection. Banks is superb and for me, this is the finest performance she has given to date. Her attentive warm character is a complete
    contrast to her recent more novelty roles. To date she seems to have specialised
    in smaller part-time roles which are all quite similar, such as in the “Hunger Games”, “Magic Mike XXL” and “Pitch Perfect” so it’s good to see her branch out here. Giamatti provides an unnervingly perfect performance as the shady therapist. It is worth noting that, Pohlad, an accomplished producer had the cooperation of Wilson and his now-wife, Ledbetter for this movie. “Love and Mercy” is a finely crafted portrait of a genius and while it doesn’t claim to solve the mystery of Brian Wilson, it certainly succeeds in helping you understand where he was coming from. I think the depth of the material together with a number of expert performances should attract a very positive reception.