Ambivalence and apprehension. Those were the emotions I walked into Sunday night’s premiere screening of director Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy, a biopic based on the life and times of legendary Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson. As a died in the wool fan of the man and his music (this year marks 10 years since I was lucky enough to interview Brian at his Burbank, California rehearsal space), the idea of someone making a film out of his tortured existence always seemed like a tough nut to crack, and one that could be buried by the various myths of Wilson’s lost years.
Amazingly, with his film Pohlad delivers a gift to Beach Boys fans and Brian Wilson obsessives, finding a middle ground between Brian’s creative work during the 1960s and his loss of freedom and self in the 1980s under the thumb of therapist Eugene Landy. The Pet Sounds-era is lovingly recreated, as we see a young Brian (played with true warmth by Paul Dano) push the limits of his creativity, encouraged by colleagues but belittled by his family and bandmates. Pohlad puts us right in the middle of the various Pet Sounds and SMiLE sessions in a way that rings with complete truth. Dano is a wonder in the role; there are moments where the actor seems to have literally morphed into a young, hipster Brian.
The 1980s portion of the film features another outstanding performance, this time from John Cusack as Brian in his late 40s. I was wary of how Cusack would approach the role. Elder Brian has long been a series of facial ticks and childlike interaction, traits which Cusack pulls off admirably. You can genuinely feel the softness in the man, and it’s not hard to understand why Melinda Ledbetter (an appealing Elizabeth Banks) could fall for him, even with all of his issues. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti is the de facto villain as Eugene Landy, who professes to have Wilson’s best interests at heart but whose motives become increasingly doubtful as the film continues. The scenes where he chastises Brian are hard to watch considering how close to the truth they likely are.
The night of the screening of Love and Mercy, Brian Wilson was sitting in the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatre, watching his life story unfold before his eyes. I can’t imagine what the man would be thinking. Would he be filled with horror to have to relive hard times? Would he find comfort and joy in seeing his brilliant abilities brought to life for others to appreciate? There are no answers, but I believe that both Brian, his wife and his fans can sleep easy knowing that the man’s remarkable story has been told with reverence, understanding and, of course, love and mercy.