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USA 2015
Directed by
Bill Pohlad
120 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Love And Mercy

Synopsis: In the late 1960s, the Beach Boys have established themselves as one of the most successful bands of their time  but as they prepare to tour to Japan, Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) convinces the other band members to let him stay behind and work on some new material.  During the recording of that album – what would become the seminal ‘Pet Sounds’ - he begins to lose his grip on reality. Twenty years later, after famously taking to his bed for more than a year, an older Wilson (John Cusack) is now being controlled and exploited by a dubious therapist (Paul Giamatti),but he still manages to find new love and potential salvation in Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Whilst this well-crafted and beautifully performed film has elements of a great biopic like Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004) its narrative isn’t driven by the songs in the way that a juke-box musical such as was Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2013). Love And Mercy is a riveting and moving study of genius and the vulnerability of a fragile creative mind to the controlling power of a forceful, unethical personality.

In opting to steer clear of the prosthetics and make-up approach to dealing with a character in two different stages of his life, director Pohlad has cast different actors to play both the young and middle-aged Wilson and the idea works a treat. It might be no surprise that Dano puts in a compelling performance as the younger Wilson struggling to stay in touch with reality whilst trying to convince an unloving manager/father (Bill Camp) along with the rest of the band, of the validity of his inspired but offbeat approach to creating new music. Their devotion to the Top 10 hit blinds them to the significance of the music Wilson is creating and becomes the basis for the inevitable tensions that form within a band at the top of the charts. What is a surprise is Cusack who seems back on top of his sometimes wobbly form with a pitch-perfect understated performance as the older Wilson. Together with a strong turn from Banks, we are drawn into a sweet and moving love story that instead of being about ‘the girl who broke the band apart’ is about the girl who put the man back together.

What’s really interesting, though, is the choice not to punctuate the film with a lot of long adoring sequences devoted to the Beach Boys’ hits. They’re all there of course, but only occasionally in the foreground of the film. More often they are background texture rather than show pieces.  This allows the drama,the emotion and the fine performances to shine, and trusts that the power of the songs can be used sparingly to evoke a strong response.

The film is directed with confidence by Pohlad who, despite only having one other feature film under his directorial belt, has excellent movie cred as the producer of other beautifully-made films like The Tree Of Life (2011) and 12 Years A Slave (2013). It seems that working with directors of the calibre of Terence Malick and Steve McQueen has rubbed off on him.

By the way, the recent concert clip of the real Brian Wilson on stage is a credit sequence bonus not to be missed.




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