I’m a notorious biopic curmudgeon, especially when I know something about the subject. The new Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy leaves me almost nothing to kvetch about. Its only sins are minor ones such as condensing and over-simplifying BUT they overdo neither and they nail the big picture. As to sins of omission, there were a few but I usually let that slide when a film is as well done as Love & Mercy.
The film features fine performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack as the Brian the younger and elder. There’s universal acclaim for Dano, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Pet Sounds era Wilson, whereas there’s some grumbling about Cusack. I strongly disagree, he nails Brian’s awkward, loopy charm as an older man desperate to get better; even if he doesn’t physically resemble him in the way that Paul Dano does.
The two real scene-stealers in the movie are Elizabeth Banks as Brian’s rescuer and future wife, Melinda, and Paul Giamatti as Brian’s evil and insane therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. Banks’ performance is nuanced and calibrated whereas Giamatti’s is flamboyant and OTT. But by all accounts that’s who Landy was when he was Brian’s captor. Giamatti wears such a bigass toupee that I kept expecting it to fall off whilst berating poor Brian. Dr. Melfi weeps…
I’m usually not a fan of movie timeshifting and flashbackery but it works here. The Sixties scenes brilliantly convey Brian’s musical genius. We see him in the studio with the Wrecking Crew, getting those old pros to try the weird time signatures and odd instrumentation that made Pet Sounds such a groundbreaking album. When the Beach Boys return from touring without Brian, they are not happy with the album, particularly the Modred of the band, Mike Love.
Many reviewers have connected the dots between Brian’s father, Murray, and Dr. Landy. Both are overbearing personalities who bully and browbeat Brian into submission. They’re essentially the same person and so, too, is his cousin, Mike Love. The ironically named Love is one of the biggest assholes in rock and roll history. His despicable exploits could fill an entire wing of the malakatude hall of fame. I was glad that Love & Mercy was as hard on this bastard as it was. I expect that litigious teabagger to sue them any day now. It’s what he does.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when young Brian plays the hauntingly beautiful God Only Knows for his father Murray. They’re at home and Murray sits there in his bathrobe, pipe tightly clenched between his teeth, scowling through the whole thing. He hated it for not being like the fun early songs and reminded his son that the band had fired him as their manager. At least he didn’t start beating on Brian, which was one of his favorite pastimes.
As hard as parts of Love & Mercy were to watch, it’s a great film that even has a happy ending: Brian is freed from Landy’s grip, marries the gorgeous spunky blonde, and gets his life back. He’s made some very good music in the last 25+ years and has even toured with the Beach Boys again. Mike Love, who owns the band’s name, fired him after the 50th anniversary tour. Typical dickish move on his part.
I give Love & Mercy, 4 stars, an Adrastos grade of A, and an Ebertian thumbs up.
The last word goes to Brian Wilson. Note the songwriting credit for his tormentor, Dr. Landy, Typical gangster move on his part: