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Love and Mercy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
24 07 2015

ImageDirected by Bill Pohlad

‘Even the happy songs sound sad,' remarks one of the Beach Boys early on in this surprising and original film about Brian Wilson. And that's the nub of those bouncy, dynamic songs of innocence, just as it's the paradox of Wilson's bland, nerdy exterior and the turmoil inside. Like a less manic I'm Not There, where Bob Dylan was represented by a wide slew of very different actors, Pohlad has chosen to present his story with two very unalike figures as the protagonist. Paul Dano is a shoo-in for Brian of the 60s, his saggy, open, not-very-bright looking face under its unflattering pudding basin haircut unnervingly recognisable. It's a face that can erupt into pure joy or form a blank mask that can't understand its own misery.

But it's not just clever impersonation. Dano gives a subtle and moving performance as a man of fragile stability who is a victim to his emotions and to his obsession with perfection, forever tweaking the elements on the recording studio for the perfect sound - he even gets the exact number of hair grips fixed onto the piano strings for right quality of twanginess for what was to become Good Vibrations. These recreations of studio sessions are, incidentally, a real musical treat.

Interlaced with the 60s we see the wrecked figure Brian has become in the 80s, played now by John Cusack, a strange choice, you might think, with his pointy face and mannerisms. In fact I very soon ceased to care or even noticed how unlike a) Wilson or b) Dano he looked. He might not literally quite have the chops for the role but he convincingly captures the restless haunted soul Brian had now become. His downright nasty father beat him as a child and then, as his manager, tried to control his artistic output as an adult, and lo and behold 20 years later Brian's found himself a father substitute in slimy psychotherapist Eugene Landy, played with the usual gusto by Paul Giamatti. Hugely enjoyable but a bit too preposterous with his wavy mop of hair and creepy grin, I never quite believed in this bloke, but Landy appears to have had total control over Brian, whose genuine psychotic state brought about by a deadly combination of childhood trauma and recreational drugs in the good old 60s and 70s is exacerbated by toxic overdosing of his medication, with what appears to be criminal intent by Landy. But, and here the fairy tale element comes in, he's saved by the love and persistence of a good woman, Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, whom he meets trying to buy a car.

As it draws towards its unlikely, almost Hollywood ending, it's hard to wonder if the second half of the life of Brian was sentimentalised, and if it can all have been as simple as that. But, to the notes of Wouldn't it be nice' - that innocent dream of what adult life might bring, from the old straightforward days of sun and surf - as this older, still innocent, gets his heart's desire at last, it's hard not to feel just glad at a happy ending for once. As the credits roll we get the first glimpse of the real Brian, twenty more years older, the bland face shattered by experience, singing Love and Mercy, two attributes which he seems to have missed out on for so long.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, July 2015


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