This riveting dramatisation of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s journey to hell and back is one of the best music biopics ever made. Superb ensemble acting, imaginative editing and sound do justice to the genius of the film’s subject. Wilson’s story is a mind-boggling one, involving an abusive father and a monstrous doctor-cum-jailer. Love & Mercy feels like a dark psychological thriller as well as a redemptive love story, and then there is the music – heart-stoppingly, cry-for-joy wonderful.
We learn that the composer of Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations started hearing voices in 1963. His father regularly beat young Brian and his brothers; one attack left him 96% deaf in one ear – a revelation that makes his songs even more extraordinary.
In one scene young Brian (Paul Dano, so good in Little Miss Sunshine) plays the piano and sings a song he has just written, God Only Knows. It is beautiful. Then the camera moves to reveal his father, lurking in the corner of the room. Brian stops and asks him what he thought of it. ‘It’s too wishy-washy,’ replies Mr. Wilson. ‘Your brothers are going to hate it.’
The film switches between the late 1960s, as The Beach Boys’ songwriter strives to create his masterpieces, and the 1980s, when sad, doped-up Brian (John Cusack) is a virtual prisoner of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who has wrongly diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and is controlling his life as if he is a sick child.
At a car showroom in the 80s Brian strikes up a conversation with salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). When he leaves, she picks up a card he has left on the front seat of the Cadillac: the words ‘lonely scared frightened’ are scribbled on it. Melinda answers this cry for help, but it is not easy rescuing Brian from the toadlike and terrifying Landy.
If all this sounds like a ‘downer’, it isn’t. There are uplifting scenes of the Boys recording harmonies and goofing about in the studio. There are self-deprecating jokes (80s Brian asks for someone to turn off the radio when Sloop John B comes on), and there is always the majestic music to act as an anti-depressant.
For music fans it is a treat to see Paul Dano-as- Brian at work on Pet Sounds and his ‘pocket symphony to God’, Good Vibrations. In 1966 The Beach Boys were competing seriously with The Beatles, whose album Rubber Soul prompts Brian to remark ‘we can’t let them get ahead of us’, and announce ‘I’m going to make the greatest album ever made’.
To this end, the obsessive perfectionist Wilson hires crack musicians to help realise the sounds in his head. He puts his piano in his sandpit. He puts hair clips on the piano strings to get ‘shaky’ sounds, and he drives himself and his bandmates half-mad in the process. ‘Who are you?’ asks an infuriated Mike Love, ‘Mozart?’
It is the love of a good woman that gives Brian the confidence to rediscover his mojo. He might have spent two or three years in bed suffering from drug-induced psychosis, but his post-1980s story is a heart-warming one: Brian Wilson came back from hell. Today, he continues to make great music and turn a younger audience on to the joys of The Beach Boys’ back catalogue.