A musical biopic with a twist, Love and Mercy portrays The Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson at two different points in his life. A younger Wilson (played by the terrific Paul Dano) struggles to lead the band in an agreed direction. Trying to create great, innovative music whilst dealing with signs of concerning mental health problems – all amidst a light haze of pot and LSD – young Brian becomes more and more isolated and introverted as the story develops. We are then introduced to Brian at middle age. John Cusack shares Dano’s embodiment of Wilson’s visible mental instability whilst developing Wilson into a plagued and deeply vulnerable shadow of his former self. Here, Brian meets Melinda and whilst the two try desperately to start up a romantic relationship they’re always under the watchful eye of Wilson’s doctor and legal guardian. The manipulative physician claiming to be protecting Brian is constructed by the ferocious Paul Giamatti – a villainous but believable character who occassioanlly threatens to tip over into being a cartoon villain but manages to expertly remain sincerely human. We see very little outside of these two timelines. This bold and unconventional narrative structure gives Love and Mercy its individuality and sets it apart from other musical biopics; a genre that is so often tediously formulaic. Love and Mercy manages to avoid this dull curse of the “musician’s life-story movie” by choosing to explore mental illness and manipulation as much as the talent and legacy of Wilson and The Beach Boys. There is still the nostalgic charm of Walk the Line or Ray in this movie, from second time director Bill Pohlad, but with respect to its genre also comes a willingness to subvert and challenge audience expectations. This is a film about serious illness as well as a film about making infamous music.
Elizabeth Banks does a lot of standing around looking pretty but brings an equal amount of captivating craft-work and sincerity to the role of Melinda. Her and the script take time in letting us get to know her. The film isn’t in a rush to get its story across. It takes pleasure in very gradually releasing revelations upon its viewers. Perfectly paced and unexpectedly hypnotic, Love and Mercy uses music and sound to try to portray the noises heard in the head of Brian Wilson. It’s as much a study of brain activity as it is legacy. This is far from being a film about The Beach Boys but still manages to create a strong sense of the band’s mindset, motivations and musical intent. Dano and Cusack, although they look nothing alike, use physicality and mannerisms to create a convincing transformation of Wilson over the years. This is a film about Melinda Wilson too. Each storyline is given proportionate screen time and the film is elevated in its second half by the increased inclusion of Melinda and her fight to release Brian from the hands of his captor and abuser. Love and Mercy was the most pleasant surprise at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival and Bill Pohlad’s on stage discussion following the screening only re-emphasised the care taken and respect maintained for Wilson and his story in the making of Love and Mercy.
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