Love prevails in the Brian Wilson biopic ‘Love and Mercy’

Arts & Culture
Love and Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad (River Road Entertainment/Battle Mountain Films, 2015)

Brian Wilson was a gifted yet troubled songwriter. In Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad explores two critical periods in Wilson's life: the mid ‘60s, when he produced the Beach Boys’ highly regarded Pet Sounds album, and the ‘80s, when Wilson was under the dangerous influence of therapist Eugene Landry (Paul Giamatti).

In the film, Pohlad courageously departs from conventional biopic narrative arcs. For example, two actors play the Beach Boys co-founder; Paul Dano is the younger Wilson and John Cusack the older. This bold approach may take some viewers out of their comfort zones, but that's part of the point. Like Pohlad, Wilson also stretched boundaries and pushed fans out of their own comfort zones. Pet Sounds, for example, was made in an attempt to find a completely new sound.

Dano captivates as Wilson, sure of his vision and attending to each detail in order to achieve it. His performance renews viewers’ appreciation for the songwriter’s artistry. However, his portrayal complicates this pop star as well. From the opening shot, which shows Wilson at a piano in a darkened room arguing with the voices in his head, we see what a tortured person he really was. 

Those voices derailed Wilson’s life, leading him to famously spend two years in bed. Eventually, Wilson's therapist Landry convinces Wilson to get out of bed and lose weight. After this point, Wilson leans on Landry exclusively, trusting him to make all of his decisions. Landry controls what and when Wilson eats and how many drugs he takes.


Cusack has reached his peak as the older Wilson. Always likeable, Cusack's performance makes viewers want to save Wilson. Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who enters Wilson’s life, also draws out viewers’ visceral sympathy for Wilson. She takes the likeable but uneasy man as she finds him, not as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and Cusack and Banks’ rapport is natural.

While Wilson and Ledbetter’s romance evolves tentatively, Ledbetter’s more important role is as an advocate.  She’s the film’s heroine, and Banks’ restrained giddiness when she outwits Landry is worth your ticket.

Dano and Cusack’s performances inform each other, with Wilson’s sweet vulnerability at their core, and Love and Mercy emerges miraculously whole. Often achingly sad yet ultimately hopeful, Love and Mercy reminds you if you find the right person to love, mercy will surely follow.

Image: Courtesy of Love and Mercy