"Love & Mercy": A film review of the Brian Wilson biopic

Sometimes the little voice inside your head can give you a truly creative breakthrough, while other times it can simply drive you mad.

For Brian Wilson – the creative force behind the Beach Boys (and Fly’s Profile feature for June) – it’s the voices in his head that not only allowed him to create some of the most iconic songs and albums of an entire generation, but they also helped to deteriorate his mental state ever since 1965.

The voices Wilson has struggled with play such a central role in the new biopic Love & Mercy that they’re present from the opening scene of the movie, as the 20-something Wilson (played by Paul Dano) sits in a dimly lit studio, smoking a cigarette.

“Sometimes it scares me to think where it’s coming from, you know – like there’s someone else inside of me other than me,” Dano hauntingly says in the film. “What if I lose it and I never get it back? What would I do then?”

It’s the opening scene of Love & Mercy that sets the entire tone of the outstanding biopic that follows Wilson’s life during the time period when he was creating the Beach Boys’ quintessential album, Pet Sounds, and its failed follow-up, Smile. The film then seamlessly flashes forward to the 1980s when an older Wilson (played by John Cusack) is kept as a near prisoner in his home by psychiatrist Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti), as Wilson falls in love with a Cadillac dealer and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks).

Throughout Love & Mercy, you’re able to get a clear sense of the tortured soul of Wilson, as he’s passed around by various people looking to use his creative output for their own gain, all while dealing with his own mental anguish.

There are powerful scenes between Wilson and his father, Murry (played by Bill Camp), as the young musician seeks recognition and encouragement from a man who consistently put down his achievements, used him for money and beat him as a child.

There’s the power play between Wilson and his cousin and bandmate, Mike Love, who wants the Beach Boys to go back to a successful “formula” after lukewarm sales of Pet Sounds and what he deemed to be “druggie songs” on the album.

Most of all, there’s the unsettling scenes between the older Wilson and Landy (aka Dr. Feelgood), as the psychiatrist micromanages the musician’s every move – from when he eats a cheeseburger, to whom he’s allowed to see. Giamatti’s portrayal of Landy is reminiscent of his role as “Pig Vomit” in the Howard Stern film Private Parts as a domineering personality you love to hate.

While Love & Mercy is a timepiece that deals with two different decades, the movie doesn’t feel dated. It’s more of a story of love triumphing over unthinkable odds and the thin line between genius and insanity.

Moments of slightly psychedelic elements also provide a visual landscape to go along with the story, including white flowers that seem to bloom out of nowhere as Wilson is on LSD and a trippy scene where three different images of Wilson see themselves lying in bed at different ages (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Love & Mercy is also filled with great performances, including an early Oscar-worthy portrayal of Wilson by Dano, and another solid acting job by Cusack, whom I’ve always considered as one of the more underrated A-list actors.

I’d definitely recommend Love & Mercy for anyone who’s a fan of the Beach Boys, and I’d go farther to recommend it for anyone who’s simply a fan of cinema and storytelling. Listen to the little voice inside your head that tells you to go to a matinee.

Love & Mercy is currently playing at Penn Cinema in Lititz. Go to Fandango.com for showtimes and tickets, or call the theater at 626-7720.


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Posted in Arts+Culture – Harrisburg, Arts+Culture – Lancaster, Arts+Culture – York, Movies

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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