Formed in 1961, The Beach Boys have sold more than 100 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. They were listed at number 12 on Rolling Stone‘s 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
The driving force behind the California sound was the enigmatic songwriter, singer and co-founder Brian Wilson and Love & Mercy is an intimate and unconventional portrait of him. It is not a documentary, but a traditional feature, with Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) and John Cusack (Maps to the Stars) sharing the role as the troubled musical virtuoso. Set against Wilson’s groundbreaking, era-defining music, the film examines the personal voyage of a cultural icon whose success came at extraordinary personal cost. It has been made with the full cooperation of the musician and his wife.
Love & Mercy offers a glimpse of Wilson, the boy genius who co-wrote such pop hits as “Surfer Girl” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”. There were the game-changing masterpieces “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” before he disappeared from the public eye for years.
Spanning more than three decades of Wilson’s life, the movie reveals the darker and more complex story that lies beneath the music’s sun-kissed surface. That includes Wilson’s battle with mental illness and drug abuse, his years under the influence of therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and his relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The film is directed by Bill Pohlad (Oscar-nominated producer of The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave) from a script by Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) and Michael Alan Lerner.
What a glorious kaleidoscope of a film this is with a sensational turn by Elizabeth Banks as Brian Wilson’s potential saviour. She plays a model turned car saleswoman, into whose dealership an ageing Wilson walks, heavily drugged, intent on buying a vehicle. This is a man who had been hearing voices in his head since the early ‘60s and whose mental fragility was exploited and abused.
Love & Mercy is compelling, insightful viewing as we are treated to a car crash waiting to happen. The question becomes will there be a circuit breaker and, if so, not only who or what will it be, but can it last?
Much of the film is given over to Wilson’s prowess and attention to detail as a writer without peer, a man whom other musos look up to as having almost God-like qualities. A similar amount of time is spent watching Wilson tripping out and barely functioning because of the heavy cocktail of drugs in his body, a legacy of his mercenary, exploitative doctor. I found it impossible to turn away from what unfolded – a remarkable life led by a musical prodigy. And we get to hear all those great tunes too.
Rated M, Love & Mercy is, indeed, a revelation that scores an 8 to 8½ out of 10.
Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack and Paul Giamatti
Release Date: 25 June 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television