The best musical biographies give you a moment when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you witness the miracle of a song’s creation. We get a chill as Ray Charles cooks up “What’d I Say?” or Mozart madly turns a baroque ditty into a mini-masterpiece, straight off the frilly cuff.
“Love & Mercy,” the new film about the rise, fall and revival of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, treats us to several of those. Producer (“Brokeback Mountain”) turned director Bill Pohlad takes his camera close to the keys as Brian plucks piano strings with hairpins, leaving a few on adjacent strings to create a rattling echo. We hear what singer Mike Love (Jake Abel) heard in the chords that turned into “Good Vibrations,” Wilson’s “pocket symphony.”
Always-engaging, “Love & Mercy” tells a tale of two Brians – the young, competitive genius who transcended the surf, sun and sexy girls pop that made the band famous and concocted “Pet Sounds,” his answer to the best of The Beatles. Paul Dano, in a brilliant performance, lets us drift into young Wilson’s skull, experience the slack-jawed trances that had him translate the sounds in his head into records. Wilson, as Dano’s version of him says in the movie, “plays the studio” like an instrument.
But “Love & Mercy” captures some of the downside of that genius. We see his descent into madness, the drugs and perfectionism that drove it. And we witness the lifelong struggle for acceptance by his abusive father (Bill Camp, subtle and sharp), and revenge by detailing the abuse — physical and passive-aggressive mental — after his father’s death.
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John Cusack plays this older, post-breakdown Wilson, a twitchy, tentative millionaire genius who has the guilelessness and sweetness of an abused puppy. That’s the Wilson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) met when he came to buy a Cadillac from her in the late 1970s. That Wilson was in the care of and totally under the thumb of therapist/guru Dr. Eugene Landy, played with bug-eyed bile by Paul Giamatti.
Landy may have saved Wilson from his downward mental spiral, something “Love & Mercy” doesn’t show. But by the time Ledbetter met a smitten Wilson, the relationship had turned manipulative, controlling, over-medicating and predatory.
Pohlad, working from a script by Oren “I’m Not There/The Messenger” Moverman and Michael A. Lerner (“Dumb and Dumber”), weaves these two eras together, showing Wilson at his creative peak, the beginnings of his descent, and then at the moment of his rebirth.
Structurally, it works even if we suspect much is being left out. Landy diagnosed the man as “paranoid schizophrenic,” a not-unreasonable assumption, based on the late ’60s Wilson’s behavior. Somehow, the helper turned into a predator, and that story is a movie in itself.
Dano put on a layer of puffiness for the part, and makes us feel the control freak neediness of an artist who never felt appreciated by those closest to him. Cusack adds vocal and physical mannerisms to the later Brian, but wearing his familiar jet-black dye job undercuts the illusion. He never loses himself in the role. Banks nicely hints at the attraction Ledbetter must have felt before her need to rescue him took precedence in the relationship.
“Love & Mercy” strikes all the expected notes of hunger, creative fervor, success, tragedy and vindication that we expect from such movies. But if you don’t get a little chill hearing Dano, doing his own rehearsal singing, picking out “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “In My Room” or “God Only Knows” at the piano, your musical tastes need broadening.