Bill Pohlad’s new film Love and Mercy, which a title credit tells us is “based on the life of Brian Wilson,” is a valiant attempt to do a music biopic that sidesteps the clichés of the genre. And it mostly succeeds: even those (like myself) with no prior knowledge of Wilson’s story and only the most general level of familiarity with the music of the Beach Boys will find much to enjoy and appreciate here.
Structurally, Love and Mercy tries to avoid the conventional star narrative of rise-fall-recovery by scrambling the pieces of the story. Pohlad, working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman, cuts deftly back and forth between two different periods of Wilson’s life. In scenes set in the mid-to-late 1960s, Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, meets resistance from his bandmates and family members when his songwriting becomes subtler and his artistic vision more ambitious than his surf-rock persona will allow. (His father and manager, who pressures him to keep churning out bubblegum-flavored chart-toppers, calls “God Only Knows” lugubrious and morbid; his cousin and fellow band member Mike Love dismisses other lyrics as nonsensical, subversive, or both.) As the band records Pet Sounds and breaks ground on what would become the doomed follow-up project Smile, Wilson’s psyche begins to fray. The film’s other half, set in the late 1980s, finds the forty-year-old Wilson (now played by John Cusack) under the thumb of another controlling father figure, psychiatrist Eugene Landy. Every aspect of Wilson’s life is dictated by the abusive and manipulative Landy until Melinda Ledbetter, the car saleswoman with whom Wilson has fallen in love, makes it her mission to free him.