love-mercy01Much has been made of the connection between the sense of smell and memory, but the movie Love & Mercy reminds us of how evocative certain sounds can be. The beautifully remastered soundtrack from this film coming through a Dolby Atmos system in a darkened cinema brings forth a flood of memories: summer heat, sprinklers sending arcs of cool water over the lawn, coconut-scented suntan lotion, riding in your buddy’s car with the windows down, slow dancing on Friday nights in junior high. The Beach Boys provided the soundtrack for Americana for the last 50 years, and it is their music which is this new film’s ace in the hole.

You watch. You listen. You come away with an appreciation for a song like God Only Knows equal to that routinely given to a famous concerto.

Love & Mercy is Brian Wilson’s biopic. The thumbnail sketch for this artist is musical genius gone mad, an entertainment industry version of A Beautiful Mind. Wilson went from eccentric to recluse to schizophrenic in short order. This new film, which unquestionably shows the story from his perspective (the credits state that the film is based on the life of Brian Wilson, rather than any written source material), seeks to set the record straight as to who this man is, what his contributions to music were, and how he came back from the brink. It is greatly successful in validating Wilson as one of the leading influences to date on pop music, and adequate in its other efforts.

The film jumps between the mid-1960’s and the late 1980’s, employing two different actors to portray Wilson. Paul Dano has the assignment for the younger version, and he absolutely nails it. Dano captures the nuances of an artist who composes in his mind the way a chess master plays complete games in his thoughts. He remains convincing as the musical notes turn into disembodied voices that increasingly bedevil him. The irony of Wilson’s mental condition is that this genius of sound suffers from auditory hallucinations. Dano and director Bill Pohlad collaborate in showing the drop off from mastery to incapacity. The studio sessions, given an almost documentary feel by being shot in a 16mm style, are particularly effective.

In the 60’s scenes, we meet the other members of The Beach Boys with Jake Abel as Mike Love a singular standout. Gradually, we see Brian becoming a more solitary figure, opting out of touring with the band, choosing instead to immerse himself in composing, while dealing with one of the most painful distractions imaginable – an abusive father who has been fired as the group’s manger (Bill Camp as Murry Wilson). His drug experimentations intensify, although the movie is noncommittal as to the chicken and the egg nature of Wilson’s drug use and his mental illness.

Whenever the film skips to the late 80’s, the fully baked, sleepwalking Brian Wilson is played by John Cusack, who comes up short here. Cusack is a professional actor, and he delivers a professional performance, but it is one without resonance. Cusack was unable to find the essence of the older Wilson, and therefore cannot convey to the audience an explanation for why this man has disintegrated, completely subjugating any sense of self to the overbearing care of psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

There’s no kind way to put this – Giamatti is a train wreck here. He plays Landy as if he’s still doing the super villain Rhino from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Given a bad wig and a belligerent attitude, Giamatti is utterly ham-handed in his portrayal of the psychiatrist who allegedly isolated and drugged Wilson, before making himself the star of the musician’s autobiography and chief beneficiary of his will. But what’s the point of a super villain with a super hero? And the super hero in Love & Mercy, who sets out to destroy Landy, is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman who befriends Wilson when he wanders into the dealership one day.

Banks is irresistible – in general, and in this film. We are accustomed to seeing her in comedic roles, with recurring appearances on Modern Family and 30 Rock and her delightfully winsome turn in the otherwise lightweight Walk of Shame.  Here, she does drama and does it well. It’s standard Angel of Redemption stuff, but who better to pull it off.

If you know the real story of Brian Wilson, you know the ending of the film. Either way, you’ll agree that the last scene is godawful. Stick around anyway. The credits contain a treat – the real Wilson singing the title song in concert. Stay all the way until the lights come up in the theater, and you’ll have the chance to hear an excerpt from Wilson and the rest of The Beach Boys in the studio. It’s an opportunity for one last chill down your back provided by the memories of these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

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