“You’ve been touched by greatness,” we hear a studio player flat-out tell Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy’s most conventional moment. Chances are good that anyone going to see this already knows how great Wilson was, a seminal force on the midcentury American pop landscape with his band, the Beach Boys, and the film suggests that the seemingly humble singer-songwriter knew full well that he was tapping into something special.
Thankfully, Bill Pohlad’s second directorial effort largely eschews biopic formula, abandoning the cradle-to-grave, rags-to-riches routine to focus on two primary points in Wilson’s life and career: making erratic progress on the now-beloved album Pet Sounds during the Sixties, and recovering from a stint of intense reclusiveness in the Eighties. While he loses his way in his younger years, Wilson is portrayed by Paul Dano; as he cautiously finds it again in middle age, he’s played by John Cusack.
A similar multi-actor technique was employed by Todd Haynes for his Bob Dylan composite, I’m Not There (also co-written by Mercy’s Oren Moverman), but the gimmick proves far more emotionally engaging in this instance, with the echoes of a turbulent past resounding in the then-present day. As Dano’s Wilson succumbs increasingly to drug abuse and his own demons, his tentative romance later on with the endlessly patient Melinda Ledbetter (Banks, terrific) is informed by that urgency and desperation.
In addition to the all-around burden of fame, Wilson must contend initially with his disappointed father and manager, Murray (Camp), then with oppressive psychologist Eugene Landy (a wig-clad Giamatti, striking the film’s falsest notes as its easiest villain). The equally fragile leads sell the turmoil – both internal and external – as well as those vital moments of persistence and harmony within the sanctum of the recording studio, epitomized by a shot of Wilson half-swallowed by a piano, plucking the strings with bobby pins, as the music he creates all but consumes him.
Having done little more than snoozy direct-to-Redbox action fare for the past few years, it’s refreshing to see Cusack in something of an intentional stupor, causing his romantic gestures and fearful outbursts to resonate all the more. Ultimately, all involved are cast in the shadow of Dano’s wide-ranging performance, capturing Wilson at his most ecstatic and his most hopeless. Already a well-established talent with remarkable turns in There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine, the young actor has never demonstrated such profound sensitivity as he does here. Some might even say he’s been touched by greatness, or at least does a damn good impression of it.
See “Good Vibrations" for an interview with the director.
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