Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson loved being tucked away in the recording studio, especially, as this new biopic suggests, when the other guys in the band were off chasing girls. To watch actor Paul Dano (a magically right choice with a beautiful voice) steer his ace session band through what would become their iconic 1966 album ‘Pet Sounds’ is to have a piece of rock history recreated right before your eyes. Bobby pins rattle on piano wires, bicycle bells chime, and as pissed-off bandmate Mike Love points out, ‘even the happy songs sound sad’. Wilson, a pop savant, was chasing some kind of dragon, and as the movie toggles years forward to the scared, over-medicated Wilson of the 1980s (John Cusack, convincingly strange), you sense that the dragon bit back.
‘Love & Mercy’ is best seen as an LA psychodrama that sometimes plays like ‘Boogie Nights’, sometimes like its own beast. The script is by Oren Moverman, who performed a kind of jujitsu on Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s ‘I’m Not There’, in which six actors played different aspects of Dylan’s personality. His Wilson story is a lot more traditional, but more moving as well. There are some too-obvious metaphors (like Wilson struggling in the deep end of a swimming pool), but you forgive them.
As stunning as the two lead actors are, the film is hijacked by two others: Elizabeth Banks as the older Wilson’s salvation – his second wife Melinda, a coolheaded California girl who makes him feel young again; and Paul Giamatti as his notorious therapist Eugene Landy – watchdog and captor. Both have a stake in Wilson’s wellbeing, and it’s a tribute to ‘Love & Mercy’ that the two characters play like real people trying to make Wilson smile. Of course, relationships are never that simple – but then you already knew that from ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’.