Love and Mercy is the dramatized version of two different parts of The Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson’s life. In the 1960s, he is abused by his father as he attempts to create a “new kind of music” while a burgeoning psychosis and a drug habit start to take hold of his life. In the 1980s, he is broken and under the tutelage of a maniacal therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him to keep him in line until he meets a car saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Needless to say, this is heady stuff.
Paul Dano and John Cusack do a commendable job as past and future Brian Wilson and Elizabeth Banks is strong, the heart of the story. Newcomer director Bill Pohlad also does a very good job in screen direction and utilizing his frame.
The issue however is that this is not a new story. It seems that all biopic films about musicians of the 1950s and 1960s feature the same tropes: parental drama, drugs, an unlikely romance that saves the soul of the artist and the allure and depredation of fame. One need only look at films such as Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), I’m Not There (2007) and La Vie en Rose (2007) to see the formula used again and again. Granted, there’s only so much filmmakers can do when so many artists have had similar pitfalls and career trajectories, but it has become so repetitive. The film does offer a twist on the formula by showing how manipulation by a close friend (Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy) can overtake someone’s life and presenting a dual view of Wilson’s issues, but it is still an ‘overcoming drugs and fame through love’ story.
And the film offers little in terms of happiness. It succeeds brilliantly in putting us in Wilson’s shoes (a tribute to the strength of the acting and directing), but it is such a sad and sorry point of view that it’s a bit hard to feel uplifted at the film’s ending since we never really see Wilson happy. A few moments of joy along the way would have gone a long way towards making the emotional conclusion really work.
In addition, Melinda Ledbetter’s role is a little too perfect. She is more representational of “feminine virtue” in a role that could be more dimensional.
Love and Mercy is not a bad film nor a great film. It does some things well and misses at others. You’ll remember some parts and forget others. You’ve seen it before, and you’ll probably see it again. But it illuminates another one of the classic musicians of the 1960s, and you can’t help but feel closer to Brian Wilson at the film’s conclusion. That is at least worth an interest.