MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Bill Pohlad. Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano
It’s probably safe to say that a biopic about Brian Wilson, the lead singer and creative genius behind the 1960s musical group The Beach Boys, is not of great interest to many people. But Love & Mercy is not your standard celebrity biography and you may find yourself caring more about Brian Wilson than you ever thought you would.
Years ago I remember reading in Rolling Stone and other magazines about Brian Wilson’s mental health problems. He was having a hard time writing music and the Beach Boys were on tour without him. He had a piano placed in a giant sandbox and had become seriously overweight. At the time (mostly) people just felt sorry for him.
Love & Mercy tells the story behind Brian’s breakdown, revealing a creative genius who was readily exploited by his brutal father/manager Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) as well as Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychologist who controlled Brian’s legal, nutritional and medical needs. When Brian started dating Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) a car salesperson who felt empathy for his pain, she began to suspect Landy and made it her mission to uncover the truth behind the dysfunction.
Two actors play Brian Wilson. Paul Dano portrays the younger version (1960s and 70s) who began to experiment with newer kinds of music after hearing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. There are several musical sequences of creativity in the studio that reveal the brilliant mind of Wilson. We see him recording tracks for Pet Sounds (a critical hit but lagging in sales) and also struggling to persuade his bandmates to get behind his next album project, SMiLE, a song cycle with lyrics (by Van Dyke Parks) considered too esoteric for the masses. As Wilson tries to move himself outward in his creation of art, Dr. Landy is pulling him in with heavy medication and emotional blackmail; his father and Mike Love (Jake Abel), one of his bandmates, just want to keep doing the popular hits.
John Cusack plays the older version of Wilson (1980s and 90s) who had become reclusive and quiet. Cusack did not do anything physically to resemble Brian’s bloated body, but he is able to hit the right notes in his depiction of despair. Elizabeth Banks gives a terrific performance as Melinda.
Love & Mercy is sometimes painful to watch, but I admired its integrity and its willingness to let us see not only how far down Brian Wilson went into the valley of darkness, but also how much one person’s love and compassion could help to save his soul. The film is really a powerful story of grace in action.
The film left me emotionally drained by also filled with hope. It is one of the best films of the year so far and well worth seeking out.
Four halos: A harrowing biopic about a famous musician struggling with inner demons and outside forces, and the persons who came to his rescue.
Three pitchforks: Drugs are overused in both prescription and recreational form; some swearing; emotional manipulation and exploitation.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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