Music bio pics are rarely masterpieces, and while “Love & Mercy” is itself a fine movie, it’s not the entry in to the long library in the sub-genre that’s changed my mind about music bio pics just yet. Much like previous films about musical geniuses, the film gets lost in a miasma of pit falls, including the inability to balance the story of the musician and the story of the man himself. So we’re thrust back and forth in to what ends as a flawed, but above average tale about mental illness, and the creation of art. “Love & Mercy” takes the concept of the bio pic above the norm, focusing on Brian Wilson, the founder of the Beach Boys through two stages of his life. One as a young man, and through his perils as a middle aged man. In both stages he’s enduring the horrors of mental illness and is systematically being victimized by someone in his life that he finds incapable of escaping.
“Love & Mercy” pictures Wilson as someone manipulated and exploited for his musical gift, and given a life as a mule for easy cash by folks that claimed to love and appreciate him. Perhaps the most compelling footage involves Wilson’s efforts to create “Pet Sounds,” and how he envisioned it as the perfect album after being pressured to compete with the Beatles. The idea behind Pet Sounds is a grueling one, as only a seed of doubt is planted in Wilson’s head, which bring him and his fellow band mates in to a torturous creative process that Brian has difficulty accomplishing. He is at most times a perfectionist hell bent on creating incredible music, but he is also doing battle with his mental illness, which refuses to relieve the pressure of providing his band mates with the best music he can muster up. There is even an aggravating sequence where in Wilson tries to train a group of cellists to produce the proper chords for “Good Vibrations” he inevitably sparks a temper fueled outburst by Mike Love.
Paul Dano’s performance as young Wilson is absolutely amazing and worthy of an award, mainly because he perfectly exemplifies the ups and downs of mental illness that only torments him the further he’s victimized by his abusive father. Wilson’s passionate and endless sessions to create music for “Pet Sounds” are mind blowing and Pohlad depicts the recording room as something of a metaphorical sanitarium and sanctuary where Wilson is serene among the padded walls, and drives everyone to the brink of madness by trying to cure his own restlessness. Pohlad depicts the recording sessions as surreal with unusual wide shots and pans that depict Wilson’s own uncomfortable madness. John Cusack is also incredible as the increasingly vulnerable Wilson who is surrounded by ghouls anxiously trying to pick off his success and wealth, to the point where he pretends to buy a car just to evade their ever intrusive presences.
As an older Wilson, Cusack beautifully portrays a victim who is stuck in his world with no idea how to escape. As time goes on he’s not even sure he has the strength to. His bond with Melinda Ledbetter (a strong turn by Elizabeth Banks) is his only means of escape, as she finds immense love for Wilson and his painful life, and makes it her mission to help him break from the clutches of Giamatti’s Eugene Landy and his incredibly terrifying influence. As a picture of mental illness, director Bill Pohlad’s film aces the horrors of enduring the disease, and how it can constantly stifle both romantic and personal relationships. It may not perfect the formula of balancing the picture of genius and the artist’s personal life, but it succeeds as a grueling and emotional tale of a mentally ill man held hostage, and inevitably rescued by the love of his life.