‘Love and Mercy’ is a powerful tribute to Brian Wilson

What It’s About

The heart, hope and healing of one of America’s greatest composers is vividly brought to life in the insightful biopic “Love and Mercy.”

Superbly acted and thoughtfully arranged, the movie examines Beach Boys’ wunderkind Brian Wilson’s rise to fame and his storied place in American culture as well as his darkest days post-nervous breakdown.

With its novel approach of using two actors to play Wilson at pivotal times, the film benefits from convincing portrayals by Paul Dano and John Cusack.

Dano’s virtuoso performance takes us through the growth of Wilson’s creative genius, the recording of his 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds,” his introduction to hallucinatory drugs, emotional and physical abuse by his father Murry, and early struggles with mental illness.

The revered songwriter’s troubled later years are capably handled by Cusack, appearing as a damaged soul who is brought back from the abyss by the love of a good woman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who finally wrestles control away from domineering therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

This “Behind the Music” glimpse of the man, the myth, and the legend is fascinating in the hands of director Bill Pohlad (producer of “12 Years a Slave”) and co-writers Oren Moverman (Oscar nominee for “The Messenger”) and Michael A. Lerner (”Dumb and Dumber”). The vibrant cinematography by Robert Yeoman (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and seamless editing by Dino Jonsater add to the overall experience.


Through their intense commitment, Cusack (“High Fidelity”) and Dano (“Prisoners”) deliver the best work of their illustrious careers. While Dano has increased his profile in Oscar-nominated films like “There Will Be Blood” and “12 Years a Slave,” Cusack has been mired in pitiful movies (“The Paperboy,” “2012,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine”) after a string of insipid romantic comedies.

In a departure from her comedic roles, Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect 2”) shines as Wilson’s savior, showing us strength and resolve.

Better when he goes to the dark side, Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) excels as the fiery, devious Svengali whose treatment of Wilson comes under fire.

Also noteworthy are Jake Abel as a contemptible Mike Love (bandmate and cousin) and Bill Camp as the destructive, pitiable Wilson patriarch.

What Works

The movie would not succeed if it didn’t showcase the Beach Boys’ enduring harmonies and unmistakable sound. Music director Atticus Ross’ reverence for the technically complex “Pet Sounds” and acclaimed “Smile” is enthralling. Ross, Oscar winner for Best Original Score for “The Social Network,” does wonders here, as the filmmakers spotlight the process in the recording studio. By isolating the vocal tracks and inventive use of different sounds — harpsichord, theremin, dog whistles — we see the impact of Wilson’s arrangements.

“Pet Sounds,” No. 2 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list in 2003, was initially not well-received critically or commercially in the United States, but the Brits embraced it, and it ultimately earned its significance in music history. Truly the first rock concept album, its influence is vast.

“Love and Mercy” is inspired cinema. It will summon new admiration for Wilson’s achievements and increase record sales.

4 stars out of 4

Director: Bill Pohlad

Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language

Length: 2 hours