Love & Mercy

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Love & Mercy

One of the big problems biopics face is how to condense an entire life down into a two hour film. Love & Mercy takes a slightly unusual approach to covering the life of Beach Boys’ creative powerhouse Brian Wilson: for the band’s glory days in the ’60s he’s played by Paul Dano, while for the darker times in the ’80s John Cusack takes on the role. It’s a good idea, even if it doesn’t always work: they both have the thousand yard-stare of Wilson, but – even with it made clear that the near-total breakdown Wilson went through in the late ’60s and ’70s has all but literally made him a new person – the two halves don’t mesh as well as they should. Not that the actors (who both give great performances) should shoulder all the blame there, as this is pretty much two different films held together by the same character.
In the ’60s scenes, Wilson is a creative powerhouse on the up and up, taking full advantage of ditching his touring duties to explore new ways of making music in the studio with the legendary ‘Wrecking Crew’ backing band. The scenes that really dig down into the creative process are the film’s strongest parts. With Wilson’s troubled past (his overbearing, abusive, coldly businesslike father is never far from mind, if only rarely seen) sketched in for colour. Gradually his mental issues – depicted here as part of his creativity (basically, the music he hears turns sour) – start to overwhelm him, and conflicts with the band (especially Mike Love) soon have it all falling apart.
In the ’80s scenes, Wilson meets an ex-model turned car salesman (Elizabeth Banks) and they develop a relationship under the watchful and controlling eye of his shrink, a clearly evil man because he’s played by Paul Giamatti in full wig-mode. Despite a great performance from Banks these scenes don’t work quite as well, largely due to a nagging feeling that we’re not getting the full story (these sections are based on a book by the real-life version of her character) behind Wilson’s near-captivity. Still, Banks and Cusack have great chemistry and her attempts to rescue him from his cartoony evil shrink and his goon squad keep things moving. Splitting Wilson’s life into two halves doesn’t quite succeed in giving us a fully rounded picture of the man (which the film itself seems to realise, suddenly piling on flashbacks and childhood memories as ’60s Wilson breaks down), but – in those ’60s composing scenes at least – it does an excellent job of showing us why he’s worth the effort.