The story of The Beach Boys’ lead singer Brian Wilson has always been a fascinating one. The musical genius – who wrote, composed and lent his indelible vocals to tracks we still listen to regularly today, from ‘Good Vibrations’ to ‘God Only Knows’, has had a tumultuous life, plagued by his own psychosis. In Bill Pohlad’s second feature (and first for 25 years) Love & Mercy, we cast an eye over this remarkable career, from Pet Sounds and beyond.
In the 1960s, Wilson (depicted by Paul Dano) wants to change the image of The Beach Boys. Their sweet, unblemished music about cars, girls and surfing is becoming old-fashioned, and while The Beatles are out experimenting, Wilson wants to do the same – and so when the band are away on holiday, he’s in the studio, single-handedly composing the tracks to their most revered album, Pet Sounds. This story intertwines with that of Wilson in the 1980s (now depicted by John Cusack), where he makes for a broken, confused figure, having suffered from anxiety attacks that saw him locked up in a room for three years. Now under the 24 hour surveillance of the devious therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), it takes the emergence of a car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) to help try to rescue him from out of this living hellhole.
Of course with any biopic – especially of somebody so idiosyncratic and renowned – a suspension of disbelief is required. But Pohlad is asking too much of the viewer in this instance, by casting two such distinctive actors to play the same role. Both Dano and Cusack shine in their respective performances, each coming to terms with the subtle nuances of Wilson’s demeanour, but it’s a real struggle to believe they are the same person. Sadly, this is emblematic of a film that feels like two contrasting pictures merged together. Both fascinating in their own right, each telling such intriguing and absorbing stories, but they don’t seem particularly compatible, and there’s an argument here that they’d work better as two standalone features. The Pet Sound years tends to make for more entertaining viewing, but it’s the scenes in the 1980s which are most empathetic, and where we’re treated to two powerhouse performances from both Giamatti and Banks.
Nonetheless, there’s something so wonderfully creative about this endeavour, and while there are certain apprehensions about whether it all pays off, considering we’re dealing with a protagonist who is known for his innovation, it seems somewhat fitting that this title follows suit. It marks a promising endeavour for Pohlad too, who has spent the majority of his time in producing roles (12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life) – but you’d like to think that now a career as a director certainly beckons. Wouldn’t that be nice?