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Love & Mercy

There is so much bathos in the world that it is really refreshing to see a sad story with a happy ending, which rises above its potentially sickening melodrama and sincerely moves the heart. I am glad to say that Love & Mercy, the story of the life of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys achieves that remarkable goal, and it does so in spades. The only sad thing to me is that apparently the box office for this fine film is miserable, and, if you want to see it, you’ll have to hurry to your local theater, or remember to get it on Netflix, when it does finally come out digitally.

I can’t remember when I last saw two well-known actors play the same character at different stages of their life, but this movie takes that risk and pulls it off perfectly. Paul Dano, as the young Brian Wilson, full of ambition, talent and musical savvy, ranges easily between the fun-loving, pool-side “normal” kid and the increasingly troubled young man plagued by an oppressive father (played by the little-known but superb Bill Camp) and a strong fear of failure. Dano really is one of the great young actors of our age, who burst on the scene as the memorable older brother in Little Miss Sunshine and has starred in movies like Looper, 12 Years a Slave, and There Will Be Blood, holding his own there over against the great Daniel Day-Lewis.

As the older Brian Wilson, held under the thumb of the shyster doctor, Eugene Landy, John Cusack has the difficult job of underplaying a heavily sedated, fearful, star who is past his prime and completely devoid of understanding who he is and what his role in the world is any more. Cusack more than succeeds, and elicits so much sympathy in the role that, combined with the seething evil portrayed in Paul Giamatti’s Landy, the tension is nail-bitingly engrossing. There has not been a better job in recent film of displaying a thoroughly good and sympathetic character over against a thoroughly evil and hateful one like this movie did and not sinking into a simplistic mawkishness that is thoroughly unbelievable.

Part of the reason for that may be the performance of another wonderful actor in the film, Elizabeth Banks. She plays Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who falls in love with Wilson and eventually rescues him from Landy, giving the Beach Boy his life back. Walking the line between trying to find out what is going on in the situation, being sensitive to a needy human being with whom she may be falling in love, and respecting the fact that that human being just happens to be a rock icon must have difficult for the real Ledbetter, and Banks lives that pressure superbly for us.

Love & Mercy is not without its flaws. One of the largest is not playing enough Beach Boys music and giving us more of the feel of the bright lights and concert glitter that also contributed to Brian Wilson’s mental condition, but if the movie had to err, it did so on the right side, not falling back on the too-easy attractiveness of the Beach Boys’ easy, early sound that made them so famous and for which they are still remembered. No, this was a movie about the artist of Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, who wanted to be remembered for his musical genius, not the shallow success of big-money, teeny bopper concerts. One of the most interesting sequences of the film is when it delves into the process Wilson followed in developing his biggest hit, which was in fact Good Vibrations.

Go to see Love & Mercy. It won’t be the feel-good experience of a 1960’s Beach Boys concert. It will be something better: an encounter with a story of love, music, redemption, sacrifice and triumph that will encourage you in the way a substantial, honest piece of filmmaking can and should.

Drew Trotter

June 19, 2015

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