Love & Mercy

Movie Information

The Story: Two parts in the life of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson — separated by 20 years and used to illuminate each aspect. The Lowdown: Brilliantly conceived and almost as brilliantly realized, this is one of those rare musical biopics that truly gets to the essence of its subject — and in a creative manner. This is in the must-see realm.
Genre: Musical Biograpy
Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Bill Camp
Rated: PG-13



I went into Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy knowing absolutely nothing about it — and by nothing, I mean I didn’t even know what it was about. I had seen the poster in passing but never paid much attention to it. (I sometimes wish this happened more often, but in our media-soaked society, it’s nearly an impossible feat.) I certainly had no reason to expect that I was settling in for a most unusual biographical film about Brian Wilson. How unusual is it? It tells Wilson’s story from two points in time — separated by 20 years — and with two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing him. It isn’t structured in two sections, however, and moves freely back and forth between the two times. To say that the two stories play at once isn’t quite right, but neither can the earlier scenes be called flashbacks. There have certainly been more unorthodox approaches to the biographical film — Ken Russell’s work, for one example, and Todd Haynes’ 2007 I’m Not There (which was co-written by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote this), for another — but it’s certainly not traditional, thank goodness.




The idea is to present Wilson at the perilous peak of his creative abilities and in the abyss into which he descended. There’s something nearing genius in this approach, but it comes with a built-in pitfall. No matter how good the later sections are, no matter how good the performances, no matter the inherent drama, this part of Love & Mercy cannot really match the force of the earlier part of the story. That’s not the fault of the film per se, but the fault of history — and the fact that the headiness of 1966 is just more interesting than the vacuum of 1986. Watching an artist — especially one who is as delicately balanced as Wilson — create his masterpiece (the Pet Sounds album) against the advice of nearly everyone, only to see him fall apart from it all — from his own demons and the naysaying of his family — is just more rewarding as complex drama.




The latter portions do work as drama, but they’re more traditional and less compelling. However, looked at as complementing the early sections, the later scenes work in a way that enhances the stronger material. While the Dano scenes might work on their own — and the Cusack scenes would not — they work better in context. Also, without the Cusack scenes, there’d be no shape to the film and certainly no satisfying ending. Things in the Dano section establish the Cusack one. The terrifying Dr. Eugene Landy (an uncharacteristically detestable Paul Giamatti), who controls Wilson with drugs and authoritarian bullying, has his roots in Wilson’s own control-freak father (Bill Camp). Neither character is complete without the other — and the reasons that Wilson is so susceptible to Landy are grounded in his father. It’s what he’s comfortable with. Despite the fact that the Dano sections are more imaginative and fresher, the Cusack sections hold them in place and make sense of them. Neither part is truly complete without the other there, too.




The essential thing that Love & Mercy gets so right is the very dichotomy that drives the film — that gulf that separates the 1950s mindset of the early Beach Boys from the growing 1960s sensibility of Wilson’s expanding ambitions and visions. The very idea that Wilson was convinced he could take the Beach Boys beyond the realm of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul is symptomatic of that gulf — a gulf, the film seems to suggest, that existed unreconciled in Wilson himself. In this regard, the film is brilliant — even in those moments where it doesn’t quite soar. The performances are all excellent. Dano is brilliant as the younger Brian Wilson, Cusack isn’t far behind him, nor are Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “Love & Mercy

  1. sally sefton

    To me the film is not as directly about the evolution of the beach boys as the madness that is sometimes a result of brilliance. It is about climbing inside the mind of one who is a creative genius and realizing that it isn’t enough if you aren’t able to control the world around you. It is also ( and I imagine you will be wincing at this) about the restorative power of love. The writers and director spend a lot of screen time developing the relationship between Wilson and Ledbetter and since the title of the film is LOVE AND MERCY, I believe that theme is at the forefront of the film. The music was almost peripheral to the story, except for us to witness some of his bizarre, hallucinongenic creative benders. Those music scenes were the highlight but didn’t last long enough to push that aspect of the film as the most important takeaway.

    • Ken Hanke

      Since we take away from a film that which we need or want from it, combined with what we bring to it, there really is no right or wrong reading of it. (And any film or other work of art that’s capable of being interpreted one way and one way only isn’t worth being interpreted at all.) Do I agree with your reading? Some of it, but it’s not what I took away from the film after either viewing, but that’s me.

      • sally sefton

        That’s why I wrote ” to me”. I was surprised that the love relationship was not mentioned in the review. It was dominant in the film.

        But yes. We take away what we need from anything we see or anyone we meet.

        • Ken Hanke

          Reviews have space limits. You pick and choose what’s most important to you. The love relationship was not the most important thing to me.

  2. Me

    I’m regretting not watching this over the weekend. How long do you think it will stick around.

    • Ken Hanke

      At least another week. Maybe longer. It did solid business, but not overwhelming (it probably shouldn’t have been in two theaters).

  3. Post-Punk Monk

    I was shocked that you did not mention the 2001 riff near the end of the film with Cusack/Wilson as David Bowman! The white sheets were a clearly tipped hat. That made me smile inwardly, but yow, what a torturous psychodrama. My wife and I saw it this afternoon and were duly impressed. It was certainly the best John Cusack movie we’d seen since “High Fidelity.”

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