Love & Mercy – individual performances sparkle in the story of a tortured musical genius

Although I love the music of the 60s, I never latched on the Beach Boys during my formative late-teen years. Perhaps the group peaked way too early in the 60s to fall into my musical catchment zone. Perhaps they weren’t as big in the UK, from where most my musical influences come. The first time I heard one of their songs was a cover version of California Girls sung by David Lee Roth in the mid-1980s; I didn’t even know it was a cover. In 1990, I heard a song on the radio called Hold On by a new girl group called Wilson Phillips; the DJ mentioned that two of the singers were the daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The band was a one-hit wonder and the Beach Boys again faded from my mind. In 2005, I started hearing rave reviews about a Brian Wilson comeback album – an unfinished project now completed; I listened to a couple of songs from the album SMiLE in 2007 and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Today however, I watched a movie that made me want to go back and discover all his music.

Love & Mercy tells the story of a musical genius who after many years in social and musical wilderness rediscovers himself and his music, with a help from a new love. The story jumps between two segments of his life – the 60s when he began his descent into madness and the late 80’s when he started climbing out of his personal hellhole. As with all these biopics, I am sure there are differences between what happened in real life and what is portrayed on screen.

Nevertheless, the movie is worth watching for the remarkable individual performances of Paul Dano/ John Cusack (as the younger and older Brian Wilson respectively) and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the car saleswoman he met in the late 80s and is credited with helping him back to recovery.

Comedic actors frequently turn in powerful dramatic performances – Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, Whoopie Goldberg in The Color Purple, Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show are the well-known cases. Of course, John Cusack would not be ranked in the same league of comic genius as the above names, nor has he restricted himself exclusively to comic roles in his career. Even so, I was surprised and very much affected by his believable and understated performance. Equally impactful was the chemistry between him and Elizabeth Banks, who after The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect movies is fast emerging as an actor and filmmaker to be reckoned with.

While the 1960s scenes offer fascinating glimpses into the recording process and studio dynamics involved in the production of the iconic Pet Sounds album, it is the 1980s scenes between Cusack and Banks which provide the real emotional heart of the movie. The prolific and ever-reliable Paul Giamatti turns in an almost frightening performance as Dr. Eugene Landy, the psychiatrist who exerted such an all-encompassing control over Brian Wilson for about 15 years.

While most of the soundtrack naturally consists of Beach Boys music, British composer Atticus Ross does a good job of filling out the gaps with music which is organically built out of snatches of Beach Boys compositions.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman is the man who works on all Wes Anderson’s films and was Oscar-nominated for. For the 1960s portions in Love and Mercy, he used a traditional 16mm camera which gives you the feeling that you are really watching clips from that time.

While Straight Outta Compton has broken records this summer as the highest grossing musical biopic of all time, it is worth checking this under-rated and little seen gem for a different view of how art trumps over adversity.

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