Love & Mercy: Film Review

Love & Mercy: Film Review

Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad

"What if I lose it and never get it back?"

The latest musician to get the big screen treatment is Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, but Bill Pohlad's film is anything but conventional for the most part as it juggles two timelines in Wilson's life.

Starting with the whirlwind ascent of the Beach Boys in the 1960s as they surfed the wave of critical success and popular acclaim, Little Miss Sunshine star Paul Dano is Wilson. As the film begins, Wilson suffers from a panic attack on a plane and convinces the rest of the band he's better suited to staying in the studio concocting their next album to fend off the Beatles' challenge.

Flash forward to the 1980s, and Wilson's in a car dealership where he meets Melinda Ledbetter, a saleswoman who has no idea who he is but is intrigued by his presence, his distance and his passion. The two strike up a friendship, but that bond is threatened by Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti complete with wig) who appears to have the best of intentions for Brian, but whose unconventional methods seem dangerous to Ledbetter.

Juxtaposing two timelines at two ends of Wilson's life is Pohlad's masterstroke in this flick that at times threatens to feel like a normal biopic as we witness his control under Landy and one woman's quest to free him from this abusive tyranny.

Banks is nothing short of incredible as Ledbetter, a soothing and tender presence that radiates warmth as she tries to negotiate the perils of the controlling Landy, even if there are moments when all she does is look aghast at what's going on. Her scenes with the older Wilson (portrayed by a distant and fearful John Cusack) have a compassionate heart that anchors the film and the pair work well together.

But it's Dano's sections as the younger and more experimental producer Wilson which impress as his troubled genius comes to the fore and the likes of Pet Sounds, Good Vibrations and God Only Knows come to life.

Scenes of working in the studio with the Wrecking Crew musicians are electric, evocative, and give an insight into the confusion he begins to feel as voices eat away at him, as well as recollections of his lack of self-worth due to his father's abuse. It's the sound which plays the greatest part here as Pohlad loops dissonant voices, music building to a crescendo and white noise to give us an insight into Wilson's state of mind and also the creative process. Studio sequences pursuing the perfect note to the horror of fellow Beach Boys take a poignancy as Wilson tries to give some form to the swirling sounds in his head.

Sensitive Dano brings a frailty to Wilson that gives you a feeling that he's likely to crumble at any moment, especially in scenes where he tries desperately to impress his bullying father with just a piano and God Only Knows. It's here that Dano conveys a level of pain and anguish that's heartbreaking and stands in stark contrast to Cusack's older portrayal of a man fearful of his guardian and broken after years of torment.

It's in these parts that the movie is the most successful as there are a few sections where it feels like more could have been made of it.

While the timelines intersect well, there's no introduction of how Landy came into contact with Wilson other than allusions to the Beach Boy's apparent 3 years in bed and treatment; equally, the rest of the Beach Boys are relatively blank canvasses (meaning the conflict with Wilson in the studio feels forced) as is Wilson's first wife, Marilyn. But these are minor niggles in a movie that really does its subject justice and re-states the case for the Beach Boys' musical legacy.

Love & Mercy is a surprising film, and believe it or not, thanks to Dano and Banks, it'll give you good vibrations.

In support of the release of Love & Mercy, Roadshow Films NZ have teamed up with the New Zealand Music Foundation – a unique charity going great things to change lives through music. To donate to this fantastic charity go to


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