The Beach Boys’ public face in the ‘60s may have been all about fun, fun, fun, in the summertime but there was a lot of torment behind the surfboards and T-Birds. It’s captured in all of its painful yet musically rhapsodic glory in “Love & Mercy,” a film that ranks as one of the best music biopics of recent years.
Of course, at their peak, the Beach Boys were really just about one person: Brian Wilson. It was his combination of pop smarts and musical vision that turned the group he formed with brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine from a purveyor of giddy, disposable surf-rock to an outfit that, with the lush symphonics of the pioneering “Pet Sounds” album, pushed hard against pop’s rigid barriers.
But that genius came with a cost: the emotional torture of being dismissed and hounded by his father and misunderstood by his brothers, bandmates and fans; the inability to establish human connections; and a retreat inward.
Portraying this, while simultaneously showcasing how Wilson came up with his brilliantly idiosyncratic pop music, is tough for a two-hour film without seeming scattershot or overcrowded. But director Bill Pohlad – better known as a producer on “12 Years a Slave” and “The Tree of Life” – has managed to do it.
First off, there are two Brian Wilsons here. An excellent Paul Dano plays the younger Brian, a man trying, and failing, to come to terms with his growing musical ambitions and industry and family expectations. John Cusack is the more sedated older Brian, who is in thrall to psychologist/Svengali Eugene Landy (a terrific Paul Giamatti), who, for a time, would control the singer-songwriter’s every move.
Reaching through Wilson’s mental fog is Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a car dealer he meets while purchasing a Cadillac who ends up becoming an important part of his life – much to Landy’s anger and dismay.
The film cuts between these time periods, letting the audience stitch things together to form a portrait of a man trapped by his enormous talents and towering inhibitions.
Pohlad, along with screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, paints an evocative picture of a time and place. As part of that, they don’t skirt the music in favor of Wilson’s psychological demons. There are well-staged re-creations of perfectionist Wilson working with the legendary Wrecking Crew studio musicians to conjure up sublime confections like the classic “Good Vibrations.”
In another summer of over-the-top cinematic extravaganzas, “Love & Mercy” proves that human emotion can be the most special effect of all.
Love & Mercy
B+ Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad
Length: 2 hours
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, drug content, mild language)
Cary: Crossroads. Durham: Southpoint, Carolina. Chapel Hill: Chelsea. Raleigh: Rialto.