“Love & Mercy” – Mostly Good Vibrations: A Film Review.
If you remember the 1960’s classic album Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love & Mercy.”
In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and teen life results in destructive adult behavior. Based on a biography of Brian Wilson, “Love & Mercy” tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which never seemed to heal.
But a tragic childhood can have moments of redemption and hope. This film has both, with the introduction of Melinda Ledbetter (played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks, earlier seen in the film “Invincible”).
Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing… How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
Melindal Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”
Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.
And that dialogue foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love & Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Eugene Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash.”
And the music! It is absolutely essential to evoking and understanding the time period and the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” provides a hint as to why Wilson is considered to be one of the greats in music. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and the seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him.
Understanding Wilson’s revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals) is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however, was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.
“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws, especially if the viewer is aware of the details of Wilson’s life. In portraying the two lives of Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), the movie sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a bigger story. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Wilson’s family intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation? Who finally bought the legal challenge that ended Landy’s guardianship of Brian? Since Wilson’s father Murry is featured in several abusive encounters, one is left to wonder how he was treated by his mother Audree.
Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to become a classic not just for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. The single “Good Vibrations” was a signal to the world of Brian Wilson’s unique musical genius. “Love & Mercy” is a paean to the ongoing glory of Brian Wilson.
Diana Y. Paul
You can read more from writer-author, artist and instructor Diana Y. Paul by visiting her blog, Unhealed Wound, at: