Arts & Books

Film review: The good vibrations of a melancholy genius

Sadness and wonder: Paul Dano as a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

In a recent interview, Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson was asked what he feels when he hears the songs he wrote as a young man. “Sadness,” he said. “Most of my life has been sad in parts.” A heartbreaking answer and a strange irony, considering that the music he created is among the most joyous in the entire pop canon. This dichotomy is at the heart of Love & Mercy, a film that recounts two momentous periods in his life.

Director Bill Pohlad takes the story of Wilson in the 1960s – when he created his enduring masterpiece Pet Sounds, began to suffer from mental health problems and got hooked on hard drugs – and interweaves it with the period in the 1980s when the musician found himself at the mercy of Eugene Landy, a dodgy doctor who controlled his career and finances, as well as his health.

Two actors take on the role of Wilson: Paul Dano in the earlier section and John Cusack playing the older version. Dano looks and sounds just like Wilson; Cusack fulfils neither of those criteria. But both men capture the essence of a haunted soul who just happens to be blessed with an extraordinary gift. Elizabeth Banks is excellent, too, as Wilson’s latter-day saviour Melinda, getting the most out of a potentially slight part.

Pohlad’s film is obsessed with claustrophobic interiors. We see Wilson trapped in his bed, in his band, by Paul Giamatti’s Landy and by his father’s refusal to offer him either love or approval. But in another enclosed space – the studio – that gap between the sadness of Wilson’s life and the wonder of his music is beautifully narrowed as we see and hear Pet Sounds coming together, and we also witness, for the first time, a man who is truly happy and free.

Too often films about musicians, painters and writers come up with a visual shorthand to abbreviate the creative process, but here the making of Wilson’s pop music is explored in magnificent detail. Songs are broken down into their constituent parts as the maestro races around the studio making sure every instrument, player and, in one case, animal is in perfect harmony.

Perhaps Love & Mercy could have delved a little deeper into Wilson’s drug-taking and the ending is certainly sentimental. But anyone who has witnessed the man’s remarkable return to artistic form since 2002 and seen him play one of his celebratory, sold-out concerts will know it is a conclusion that has the ring of truth. Wilson has undoubtedly been left mentally and physically damaged by his life experience, but he has endured. His astonishing music has too, both on stage and on record, and now in this understated gem of a film.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/7/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!