Cinematic Releases: Love & Mercy

We review the Brian Wilson biopic.

Love & Mercy is not your typical musician biopic, but rather an intense psychological portrait of its equally intense subject. It recreates two of the most volatile and pivotal eras in the life of Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson, and uses these windows to gain insight into the artist's brilliance and madness. Taking great pains to be faithful to Wilson's life and experiences – and made with input from Wilson himself – the film takes us inside his head, to a place where auditory hallucinations inspired some of the most groundbreaking music of the 1960s... nearly at the cost of his sanity. Driven by excellent performances and a fantastic, hallucinatory musical score, director Bill Pohlad's film is exactly the powerful piece Wilson's story deserves.

"I should buy a boat."

 Love & Mercy weaves its psychological portrait by cross-cutting between events at the start and end of Wilson's darkest period – which came right on the heels of his strongest creative boom. Paul Dano plays a young Brian in the mid-1960s, trying to harness the ever-worsening sounds in his head to write his masterpiece Pet Sounds, while John Cusack plays a middle-aged Brian in the late-1980s, struggling to find a way out of his long nightmare. Both actors channel Wilson quite well, but give their performances a soul that goes well beyond just a facsimile of a real person. Dano proves again what a strong and unusual actor he is, as an awkward guy who struggles to communicate verbally but comes vibrantly to life when creating art. And John Cusack gives some of his best work of recent years as a lost soul emerging from the dark. It's great to see him in a really strong role again. Also excellent in supporting roles are Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti, as the two strongest forces – for good and for bad – in the older Brian's life.

Another crucial star of the film is the brilliant sound design by Atticus Ross, who previously worked with Trent Reznor on the scores for The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. For the film to be successful in bringing us into Brian Wilson's head, it is even more important for us to hear the world from his perspective than to see it, as his auditory hallucinations play such a key role in both his creative process and mental illness. Ross creates a surreal soundscape that is at times ethereal and at other times frightening; a soundscape which uses bits and pieces of Beach Boys songs in distorted and fragmented ways that turn them into something else entirely, mixed with a cacophony of other sounds and voices. This score alone is enough to make Love & Mercy a film to see in theaters: Ross's aural maelstrom swirling around the speaker system of a theater definitely brings an emotional urgency to Wilson's experiences, and makes the audience share in his panic. The infectiously cheerful sounds of the Beach Boys hits that these experiences inspired make for an incredibly striking contrast.

"Bow to my acting skills."

Whether or not you are a fan of the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson's music, this film works extremely well just as a portrait of mental illness and creativity, and how closely the two are often tied together. With excellent performances from all four leads and a great soundtrack that combines classic Beach Boys with moody Atticus Ross orchestrations, this is an easy one to recommend. It is a bit strange that this film was released so quietly during the summer, and not saved for awards season. But then again, the music at the film's core is so often associated with summer, so maybe it is only fitting that this is when the true story behind it is told.

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 -Christopher S. Jordan