Brian Wilson, Beach Boy wonder, is the latest rock giant to get the biopic treatment, and the result, "Love & Mercy," takes a life that sounds tailor-made for a formula picture and throws the recipe into the Malibu surf. Something different and exciting happens on the screen, thanks to an off-kilter story structure, a worthy subject and inspired performances.
Relative newcomer Bill Pohlad directed the drama from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner. Moverman cowrote "I'm Not There," in which six actors portrayed Bob Dylan. Here, two actors play Brian Wilson at pivotal points in his life. Pohlad alternates between their stories.
In the 1960s, a young Brian (Paul Dano) has a head flowing with music. As his fellow Beach Boys prepare to tour, Brian has a panic attack and decides to stay home and work on the band's next project. He wants this album, the now-acclaimed "Pet Sounds," to outshine the Beatles' "Rubber Soul."
Pressures mount when bandmates deem the new songs not fun fun fun enough. Drugs and the voices in Brian's head intensify the darkness overtaking Brian.
Twenty years later, Brian, played by John Cusack, is a shattered man cared for by therapist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy overmedicates and controls him.
Brian meets his salvation in car saleswoman and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) after climbing into a showroom Cadillac. Melinda frees Brian from Landy's grip.
The 1980s material, which sometimes suggests a kidnap or mad-scientist thriller, is the movie's weaker half. Giamatti's Landy is a menacing presence, and Banks' Melinda conveys quiet revulsion, but neither has a well-developed character.
But both Brians are thoughtfully conceived. When the movie takes viewers where Brian's music is made – in the studio and in his head – it fascinates.
Scenes of Brian rubbing bobby pins on piano wires to create a desired sound are more satisfying than flashy concert scenes.
“It's hip, it's fun, it's now" is Brian's retort to criticism that his music is amateurish. Dano gets the emotional tones down (the physical resemblance appears easier) scarily, whether smiling with childlike delight or conveying anguish.
When Dano's Brian sings "Only God Knows" beautifully – as the camera circles around the piano and reveals Brian's abusive father (Bill Camp), and when the father proclaims his son's new love song a "suicide note" – it’s heartbreaking.
Even though Cusack's Brian doesn't physically resemble Dano's, Cusack (limited to reactive mode) creates a moving portrait of a broken soul who has been hearing voices since 1963.
Of course, great Beach Boys songs – the sonic equivalent of something between cotton candy and a perfect sunset – fill the movie. “Good Vibrations” is the subject of a particularly memorable sequence.
Love & Mercy
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Written by: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Running time: 2 hours