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Love & Mercy review: Why the life of Brian Wilson was no beach party

An exceptional performance by Paul Dano captures the difficulties of Beach Boys' troubled singer, Brian Wilson, writes Andrew Johnston

Published 10/07/2015

Surf’s up: Paul Dano as the band’s frontman Brian Wilson
Surf’s up: Paul Dano as the band’s frontman Brian Wilson

Love & Mercy isn't a movie charting the history of the Beach Boys, as fascinating as that would undoubtedly be. But what's arguably even more compelling is the story of the band's troubled creative genius, Brian Wilson. And it's such a sprawling tale that director, Bill Pohlad, has focused on two distinct periods in Wilson's life and hired two actors to play him.

If Paul Dano and John Cusack don't initially strike you as looking sufficiently like each other to be able to portray the same person, in the magical Love & Mercy, it somehow works. Dano possibly edges it as the younger Wilson, capturing the wide-eyed excitement of the successful 1960s pop idol, as he retreats to the studio to craft what he hopes will be his magnum opus, Pet Sounds.

Alas, Wilson's musical inspiration goes hand-in-hand with a descent into mental illness, and soon, the heavily bearded savant is spending three years in bed, gorging on food and drugs, and becoming estranged from his bandmates, his family and the outside world in general. Dano gives a truly mesmerising performance.

Cut to two decades later, and Cusack's incarnation of Wilson is under the 24-hour control of psychotherapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), whose vice-like grip extends to accompanying the beaten-down singer on dates and receiving a percentage of his royalties. As the rage-prone Landy, Giamatti is quite terrifying, investing the dodgy doctor with such unlikeable qualities that Wilson's violent father, Murry (Bill Camp), and the Beach Boys' resident philistine Mike Love (Jake Abel) come across as pussy cats by comparison. Cusack, for his part, is tender, understated and coolly charismatic.

At points, it's hard to believe so much misery could have befallen one man, but the light at the end of the tunnel - and the dramatic crux of Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman's screenplay - is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who falls for Wilson while selling him a Cadillac and sets about attempting to rescue him from Landy's clutches.

Banks is outstanding, finally bagging a role of substance amid interminable comedies and Hunger Games sequels. Having also recently directed the blockbusting Pitch Perfect 2, it's some year for the multi-talented star.

With so much going on and just 121 minutes to cover it in, Pohlad does a sterling job of tying all the strands together and making Love & Mercy accessible for a wide audience. The film should enrapture everyone from Wilson devotees, who know their Smile from their Smiley Smile, to casual viewers, whose knowledge of the Beach Boys may extend no further than the group's greatest hits.

Love & Mercy is Pohlad's first feature since 1990's little-seen Old Explorers, but the son of the late billionaire financier, Carl Pohlad, has spent the interim quarter of a century producing the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild and 12 Years a Slave, emerging a capable and thoughtful filmmaker. Love & Mercy is certainly on a par with past rock biopics such as Ray, Walk the Line or Nowhere Boy.

As with last week's Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, Love & Mercy makes a strong case that fame and fortune are not for everyone. Would Wilson have had such a turbulent existence had he not entered show business?

It's a question we'll never know the answer to, but we may be selfishly thankful he did, otherwise we'd have missed out on a lot of amazing music, not to mention this amazing movie.

Four stars

Belfast Telegraph

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