I earned my famous name.” – Brian Wilson
STORYLINE: The Beach Boy’s melodious mastermind, Brian Wilson, suffers the consequences of a near lethal cocktail of musical genius mixed with fragile immaturity – where Mozart might have gone had LSD been readily accessible on the streets of Vienna in 1781. Wilson’s frustrated attempts to earn the love (or even a modicum of respect) from his clueless father result in paranoid schizophrenia.
Drugs and a parasitic psychotherapist named Landy, to whom Wilson is tethered throughout the 1980s, conspire to derail his life and any hope for normalcy. Enter Melinda Ledbetter with whom Brian falls in love. Her devotion to him inspires her to confront the demonically abusive Dr Landy, and attempt to free Brian from the emotional and drug-forged chains that bind him.
MORAL PREMISE: desperate attempts to earn a father’s love will shut you off from the love of others and will shrivel you emotionally, while allowing yourself to be loved by someone else can lead to mental and emotional healing.
MY TAKE: Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, 12 Years a Slave) takes on a great acting challenge in the character of Brian Wilson. The mercurial Wilson achieved legendary status due in part to his unorthodox arrangements and the beautiful harmonies that established the Beach Boys as forever cool. Inspired by the Beatles’s Rubber Soul album (December, 1965), Wilson and the Beach Boys produced a string of critically acclaimed tracks, with their Pet Sounds album (May, 1966) setting a high water mark for innovation and rock artistry – until Sgt. Pepper eclipsed every rock album ever made about a year later (June, 1967).
Watching Love & Mercy isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. Like most biopics, there is a calculated bias in favor of our hero (Wilson) who comes across as the victim of a self-absorbed and jealous father, and a sadistic psychotherapist. The acid-tongued father, played with an understated bite by Bill Camp, fails to recognize (much less acknowledge) his son’s creative genius. Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy makes a feast of the scenery as he unleashes his volcanic temper in one of the later scenes.
Overall, however, it’s his performance I can’t escape. Landy is a vile, sadistic creature . It seems, though, that Giamatti could have achieved an even more haunting performance by borrowing a bit more from the manipulative machinations of Machiavelli and a bit less from the overt evil of the Marquis de Sade. Like an unhinged gate, an unhinged character doesn’t move. The unhinging does it in.
This film, however, is not about subtleties. It’s visual/emotional palette is psychedelic and primary. With the exception of Wilson, most of the characters are flat, i.e., they don’t change. That’s not a bad thing in this film. Most of the characters in our dreams or in our memories tend to flatten into two-dimensional stereotypes. That’s what Love & Mercy is: an imperfectly remembered dream with studio music filling in the tatters.
Regarding the luminous Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter: in the beginning you may wonder, “what is she doing with this bozo?” (the chemically fried future Wilson as portrayed by John Cusack); however, you will leave in awe of her patience and her courage as she faces down the monstrous Landy.
If you grew up idolizing Mike Love (lead singer), get ready for a real downer of a reality check. If you loved the Boys’ music you may be a bit disappointed in the lack of polished production pieces that highlight their music. Instead, you’ll get a lot of studio work. More of a behind-the-scenes look at the emerging (& tortured) genius of Brian Wilson.
Is Love & Mercy worth $20 and two hours out of your life? It was for me. I left the theater grateful that I had a loving father who encouraged me, and hopeful that Brian and Melinda will one day find the good vibrations that reside in Christ alone.