Did you know Brian Wilson created the twangy, sorrowful and melodic opening notes of the haunting ballad “You Still Believe In Me” by plucking piano wires with Bobby pins? Or that the inspiration for the psychedelic pop tart “Good Vibrations,” arguably The Beach Boys’ greatest hit, was a conversation Wilson had with band mate Mike Love about how dogs often react to the bad vibrations they can sense coming off of hostile people? If you groove on snippets of pop-culture trivia, and buy in to behind-the-curtain peeks at the creative processes of geniuses, then Bill Pohlad’s biographical Love and Mercy needs to be on your screening calendar.
This is the story of Brian Wilson, iconic American songwriter and one time Beach Boy, as told in two parts. In sun-drenched 1965, young Wilson (Paul Dano) begs his Beach Boys band mates to release him from their relentless tour schedule so he can linger in the recording studio and attempt to capture the melodies that are plaguing his subconscious. This tinkering would lead to the creation of Pet Sounds, an album of unusual audio experiments that many consider to be the greatest recording of all time. Meanwhile, Love and Mercy also documents the difficult story of an older Wilson (John Cusack), the broken artist living under the thumb of tyrannical therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who finds love – and possible escape – when he cute-meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Love and Mercy is an audio trip, and the way that you listen to this movie needs to be part of the overall experience. Not just the music – though the sugar-sweet tones of The Beach Boys’ spiritual harmonies remain gifts to our ears nearly 50 years after they were put to tape. But Pohlad -- who produced interesting features like Into the Wild, A Prairie Home Companion and The Tree of Life -- uses sound in intriguing ways to convey the madness in Wilson’s head. Sometimes it’s subtle, as when the roar of a jet engine won’t subside, drowning out the conversations meant to pull Brian back to reality. Other times, it’s overwhelming, as when Wilson can’t help but focus on the clinking of silverware on plates at a dinner party. Even those with a cursory knowledge of Brian Wilson probably know that he was a mad music genius, and Love and Mercy places proper emphasis on all three of those adjectives when talking about the man.
Personally, I just have a strong affinity for stories that break down the difficult (often maddening) craft of songwriting, and Love and Mercy takes pride in conveying the painstaking effort that went in to the creation of such timeless classics as “God Only Knows” or “Sloop John B.” Wilson heard these songs in his head, and fought to properly convert them to an album, often angering those around him. Mike Love (Jake Abel) comes off as the most antagonistic in Love and Mercy, a musician content to keep churning out the simplified pop-ocean tracks that made The Beach Boys radio friendly in the first place, rejecting the fact that Brian needed to dig deeper. The movie also spends a decent amount of time on Brian’s relationship with his disappointed father, Murry (Bill Camp), who never understood his creative son and actually harbored feelings of jealousy for Brian’s incredible ability as a songwriter. That’s a bit of a primer for the devastation awaiting audiences on the Cusack timeline, where Wilson’s latest “Father Figure,” Dr. Landy, abuses the enigmatic artist in the name of “therapy.” While tragic, the melodrama in both eras allows the cast to play difficult beats that are fantastic counterpoints to the upbeat, jangly and emotionally uplifting music that was born of Brian Wilson’s inner turmoil.
For that reason alone, I can’t emphasize Love and Mercy enough. Admittedly, it isn’t able to fully avoid the formula that comes with the tortured-artist genre. But Dano and Cusack both achieve what seemed very difficult at the onset: they make Brian Wilson’s rare and complicated personality something we can understand. And the music… God, the music! It is as beautiful, inspirational, touching and terrific as it was on the day it was created. So hoist up the John B’s sail, see how the main sail sets, and find your local movie theater that has the finest sound-system set up. You’ll thank me later.