Most popular music fans have some idea of Brian Wilson’s life story. After great success as the driving force behind The Beach Boys, he branched out into more experimental music, to critical acclaim but sometimes disappointing sales. Less was known until recently about his later years, apart from a general understanding that he lapsed into some sort of depression and became a recluse. Love and Mercy fills in the blanks, providing us with both an intriguing personal story, and some understanding of how musical talent functions.
The film moves smoothly back and forth between young Brian Wilson as a member of The Beach Boys, a celebrity and a budding composer (played by Paul Dano), and Wilson in his later years (John Cusack), lonely, unhappy, and under the complete control of an unscrupulous psychiatrist, who keeps him isolated even from his own family.
The story of the older Brian Wilson is the central story. We are introduced to him as, while purchasing a new car, he meets a woman named Melissa Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and begins dating her. Tension develops as Melissa becomes aware that she and Wilson are always under observation. Either Wilson’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) or one of Landy’s agents accompanies Wilson everywhere, controlling his every move. Melissa eventually realizes that Wilson is being deliberately over-medicated and manipulated, and Landy uses his influence to separate the couple. Melissa takes action, along with Wilson’s family, to free him from Landy’s control and obtain more appropriate treatment, leading to a happy ending for both. This aspect of the movie might be called a suspense story on a personal level.
The parallel story of younger Brian Wilson, told in flashbacks, is equally compelling, and places his later situation in context. Wilson’s vulnerable mental state is gradually worsened by an abusive childhood, unwanted fame, and pressure from his brothers and bandmates. However, it was also a time when Wilson developed his musical ability and indulged his creativity, producing, along with popular surfer tunes, some of the best and most original pop music of the time. The film’s best moments show Wilson composing and painstakingly arranging music for Pet Sounds. These scenes manage to convey the process of musical creativity in a way that can be understood even by those with no musical background.
While it is Paul Giamatti as the evil Dr. Landy who steals the show, both the actors playing Brian Wilson do an admirable job, and Elizabeth Banks is engaging as Melissa. The film is neither too slow nor artificially dramatized, and shows Brian Wilson’s story in an interesting and respectful way.
You might like to check out a slightly related movie just for fun: Whale Music, which stars the wonderful Maury Chaykin as a character loosely based on Brian Wilson during his “lying in bed” years.