Let’s revisit the indie-darling biopic, Love & Mercy, and explore the musical genius of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, played by Paul Dano. The film is an unconventional portrait of Brian Wilson, giving us a peek into his music and his long battle with mental health and loneliness.
Crafting the Sound Waves of Pet Sounds
Love & Mercy is a split narrative, oscillating between the ’60s and the ’80s, showing two crucial phases of Brian’s life. It’s in the ‘60s that Dano illuminates the screen, bringing a young, innovative Brian to life.
We witness the birth of Pet Sounds, a revolutionary album, and the workings of Wilson as a songwriter, along with the Beach Boys, as they construct melodies that still resonate today. Dano’s absorbing depiction of Wilson makes you feel the vibrations and the turmoil, drawing you into the surreal creative process of Pet Sounds.
The making of Pet Sounds wasn’t without it’s issues. In an interview with The Guardian, Van Dyke Parks reflected on his involvement with Brian Wilson’s project “Smile,” which followed the release of Pet Sounds. Parks shared that he was recruited to write lyrics and arrange music for “Smile.” However, he eventually withdrew from the project in 1967, stating, “It just got too much for me.”
Wilson’s invitation to work on “Smile” should have been a major opportunity for Parks, but it was undermined by Wilson’s “buffoonery”, due to his drug use at the time, and Mike Love’s aggressive behavior towards Van Dyke. Parks mentions this himself before expressing regret for bringing it up, stating, “It’s a dull issue,” “I hope it doesn’t need any further explanation. Being subjected to Brian Wilson’s foolish behavior was a form of victimization for me.”
Melinda and the Heartstrings
The arrival of Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks) finally brings some much needed compassion and warmth into Wilson’s life. Ledbetter meets Wilson during the 1980s, a time when Brian’s life is full of chaos, heavy with manipulation and control. She becomes a symbol of trust and hope for Brian. Their growing connection becomes a melody of love and healing in his life.
The Tightrope of Control
John Cusack takes on the role of the older Brian, portraying his life under the iron grip of his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, played convincingly by Paul Giamatti. Landy over-medicates Wilson with prescription drugs, leaving him ripe for exploitation, both mentally and financially. Both Cusack’s performance and Giamatti’s, are solid portrayals of Wilson and Landy.
The film, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles, contrasts the creative freedom of his younger days with the isolated life led by the manipulative Landy. It becomes a tale of resilience against the suffocating grip of exploitation and his lifelong struggle with depression and schizoaffective disorder. For Brian Wilson, fame came at an extraordinary personal cost.
The story of Love & Mercy is, yes, about the music and struggle, but it’s also a story about redemption. Melinda becomes his beacon, guiding him out of his confining circumstances into the embrace of love and freedom. Melinda and Brian Wilson married in 1995 and have five children together, including Carnie and Wendy Wilson, from the 90’s pop-group, Wilson Phillips.
A Symphony of Life and Love
The movie, Love & Mercy is an intimate look inside musician Brian Wilson’s life, painted in the melodies of his music and the shadows of his struggles. Dano, along with the rest of the cast, help us understand the man behind the music; his passion, his pain, and his ultimate renewal.
In Love & Mercy, we find a powerful convergence of music, love and mental illness. It’s a story that’s as resonant as Brian Wilson’s revolutionary music and a true representation of the man, the myth, the legend. Love and Mercy has a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 89%.
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