Movie Review: Love and Mercy

Following a number of unique music biopics, everything from 2004's Ray and 2005's Walk the Line to 2014's tale of James Brown in Get on Up, the newest addition to the genre, Love and Mercy, is something quite magical. Telling the story of the Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson through the years of late 1960s to the early 1980s, when he created one of the most unique albums of that time, Love and Mercy blends ample storytelling with some fantastic tunes to make for a brilliant tale of salvation and love. With a surprising cast, as power-duo John Cusack and Paul Dano lead the pack as Wilson in two time periods, this film is a great tribute of sorts to the man behind the legendary band. 


In the late 1960s, just as the Beach Boys take over America (and the world) with their classy and rockin' tunes of beach fun and summer, leader Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) begins his lone voyage to create something the world has never heard before. Formulating a diverse collection of sounds, everything from barking dogs to an entire orchestra, Wilson's vision blossoms into something both radical and destructive. Leaving his band of brothers in the dust, as he slowly loses his grip on reality, Wilson must find himself once more so that his life doesn't all go to waste. After years of discovering new sounds and breaking ties with his old life, Brian Wilson in the 1980s (John Cusack) must combat his own mentality, while also finding a new kind of love that just might save him.  


A story of love, salvation, daring music, and hope in times of despair, Love and Mercy was probably one of the most inspirational films of the year so far, as well as one of the most beautiful. When I first heard about this one, I was more than a little bit intrigued, as I grew up knowing of the Beach Boys and their soothing music. What I didn't know, and what intrigued me the most, was the tale of Brian Wilson. A man struggling with both the voices inside his head and the demands of a competitive music career, Wilson's story became something very essential to our society today as the film progressed. Every day people are brainstorming ground-breaking ideas and things to change the world, but many of them give in to negative influences like drugs and depression. Wilson, whose mental state deteriorated slowly as he tried to push forth his ideas, also hit numerous road blocks dealing with such negative things. However, as the film wants to show us, the power of love and forgiveness can bring a person out of such dark places, allowing them to be themselves again. This profound message, however it may affect some individuals, really ties together this tale perfectly.


A journey into the psyche of the genius of Brian Wilson, Love and Mercy had to tackle something that every music biopic must face: who would play the genius behind the music? Along with its grand message, the cast of the film was something to be noticed, if not praised. From the founding members of the Beach Boys to the people who changed Wilson's life for better or for worse, the film portrays these people with such uniqueness and emotion that you almost think they're the real thing. Not knowing much about the rich past of the Beach Boys, from their numerous recording sessions to the brotherly bond between the band, or the people who influenced them the most, I think this film captures the true essence of what the band and its leader was like back then. While it may not highlight on every member, it's truly the story of Brian Wilson, and how he overcame his broken mental state. 


So that begs the question, who did play the genius behind the music? Well, in this case, that can't be noted by one simple name. The dream team in this film, while they don't interact with each other physically, were Paul Dano and John Cusack. Both playing Wilson, one in the '60s and the other in the '80s, both actors brought their own interpretation to the character, one of the things that makes the film so daring. While Dano, a hidden gem of an actor whose only known for supporting roles, may bring his best performance as a troubled young Wilson, Cusack also brings a sentimental essence to older Wilson, one that has been broken endlessly by turmoil. However, while Cusack's struggle through love and rebirth may be the leading plot in the film, it's really Dano's take on the legendary musician in the '60s that sticks with you. An actor who seems to have just scratched the surface of what he's capable of, Dano's performance is soft and emotional, while also great to watch, as he takes on the psyche of a genius, a struggling musician, and a man with a broken soul. 


From the other members of Beach Boys, like brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson and Mike Love, to the influential people in Brian's life, like therapist/manager Dr. Eugene Landy and wife Melinda Ledbetter, the rest of the cast portrayed these people with loving and emotional performances. While I may not have known who some of them were, the way the characters interacted truly felt real, which made the film itself also feel very much real. As far as performances go, the Beach Boys (minus Brian) were decently portrayed, the only one to play much of a big role in the film being Mike Love, played by Jack Abel. Melinda Ledbetter, played by the always cheery Elizabeth Banks, acted well as the savior and soon-to-be-wife of the older Brian Wilson. However, while her character was essential to the plot, Banks' performance didn't have the same impact and gravitas that the other actors' did. Definitely a highlight in the cast, Paul Giamatti's flamboyant and aggressive Eugene Landy was the icing on the cake. Yes, while his character is the film's antagonist of sorts, progressively driving Wilson insane and masquerading it as a way of helping him, Giamatti can without a doubt play a fantastic villain (unless he's in a Spider-Man film). Even with a somewhat mediocre supporting cast, Love and Mercy definitely didn't have that much trouble blending these characters together to make this a great tribute to the life and people behind Brian Wilson. 


With a film like this, in the genre of retelling tales of legends in real-life, while the cast is something of great importance, the talents that made these legends who they are is also very fundamental. And in Brian Wilson's case, it's the music that mattered most. The music in the film, along with the brilliant score from composer Atticus Ross, was one of the greater things that made this film so memorable. As the film started, we only see a black screen, with a barrage of sounds and melodies from the Beach Boys echoing in the background. Seeing this, I truly realized what type of film this would be. Less of a tribute to the band's music, the tunes we hear throughout the film are very much their own animal, breathing unique, new life into what Brian Wilson's music stood for. Along with the occasional sing-along moments, where Dano and the band half sings, half mouths the words to famous songs, there are also those moments where you can hear the melodies of the songs, but it's a new sound entirely. While it can be described a bit as a memorial to Wilson, Love and Mercy also works excellently as the perfect new tune from one of the great artists of our time. 


Overall, this beautifully-acted, foot-tapping period piece is another great (but minor) addition to this awesome summer of movies. While some may overlook it (or it may not even be playing where you live), I would highly recommend this one to any Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fan out there, as well as any fan of music films. I personally love music films, from the many biopics to the recent treasures like Begin Again (and even musicals at times!), so this film is definitely for those fans who love tapping their feet while enjoying some popcorn. A hidden gem that deserves to be discovered, Love and Mercy is a soulful triumph with a powerful story. 


I gave this film an 8 out of 10 for its wonderful collection of sounds, its profound journey into one man's unique mind, and its daring jump to be something moviegoers have rarely seen in biographical films. With a great cast, led by Paul Dano and John Cusack's quirky and sentimental Brian Wilson, and a fun trip through the '60s, Love and Mercy may be unconventional, but it's worth it.       

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