In order to be truly enjoyable, a film biography of a musician should include a heaping helping of his music. “Love & Mercy” is truly enjoyable.
Paul Dano gives the performance of his career in this inventive biopic about Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Brilliant, fragile and vulnerable, he’s the genius of the group, a mop-headed Mozart with way too much going on in his head.
Fast forward to the present. Well, not the present present. The ’80s. It’s 20 years later and Wilson (his older self is played by John Cusack) is a gentle shambles. After spending three stoned years in bed, he’s harmed and harmless. He falls in love with a very smart, also somewhat bruised, car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) who helps him escape from the quack shrink (Paul Giamatti) who’s eternally by his side and in his space.
The story darts from one era to the other. For what it’s worth, we preferred the early years. Hats off to director Bill Pohlad, particularly for the recreation of recording sessions where only Wilson understands what will emerge from a hodgepodge of instruments, flats, majors and layers of percussion, piano trills and woodwinds. What blooms in one of these sessions is “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the opening track on the 1966 album “Pet Sounds.” The process is hypnotic.
It’s a story steeped in music and mental illness. The abusive father and drugs didn’t help, but Wilson’s madness was his destiny. His recovery? His recovery was something else. That’s the other half of this compelling tale.
Giamatti, much as you’ll despise his character, is excellent. And Elizabeth Banks may have landed a breakout role she deserves after lesser roles in “Hunger Games,” “Watch Now” and “The Lego Movie.”
Cusack has one of his heftier roles in years but, as the wasted Brian, he isn’t afforded much room for nuance. His younger self got the really fascinating part. Dano, 31, who was so good in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood,” is on his way to an Oscar. So’s the whole movie.