The dual-narrative film, starring John Cusack and Paul Dano as Wilson at different stages of his life, doesn't follow a chronological biography, but rather offers a series of insights into a legendary artist’s struggles and redemption.
These moments from Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy are critical to understanding Wilson’s victories, and his strife …
As the credits roll, Brian Wilson himself plays the titular song, “Love & Mercy,” a great reminder that there was a real person behind all the drama depicted – and proof that, with help from his loved ones, he was able to regain control of his personal and creative life.
Love & Mercy opens with a young Brian Wilson (Dano) sitting behind the piano in a dark room, mumbling to himself as he works out ideas. “Sometimes, it scares me to think where it’s coming from, y’know? What if I lose it and never get it back?” he asks, before the screen goes black and snippets of Pet Sounds blare – hinting at the dark side of genius before introducing its product.
While the Beach Boys tour overseas, Brian Wilson is hard at work in the studio. The night before their return, drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) sees him fretting over how the band will react to his work. Blaine reminds Wilson that the musicians he’s been collaborating with the studio, all conservatory trained, have worked with everyone in the business – including Brian’s hero, Phil Spector. “Phil Spector’s got nothing on you,” Blaine adds.
Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) bows out of her relationship with Wilson (Cusack), but not his care. Tricking Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) into visiting the auto showroom where she works, she hides behind her locked office door as he’s served with legal papers. The doctor goes ballistic, shouting, banging on the door and calling her names but, when she finally opens the door and physically stands up to him, the powerful doctor shrinks away, defeated.
The Beach Boys, led by cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), call a poolside meeting to tell Brian the recording of Smile – an album he meant to be the masterpiece follow up to Pet Sounds – has gone off the rails. Swimming with his clothes on, Brian Wilson ignores the complaints and only begs to his family to join him in the “deep end,” where the bugs he believes Phil Spector has planted won’t pick up their voices.
Spurred by a panic attack on an airplane, Brian tells his brothers that he’d rather stay home and work in the studio than tour. Fearing the band will lose ground to the Beatles’ following their recent release Rubber Soul, he tells his family he has new ideas about harmonies and instruments. “I can take us further, if you let me stay at home in the studio," he says. "I promise, when you come back, I will have stuff for you that will blow your mind.”
Some of the film’s best scenes recreate the Pet Sounds sessions, where we see Brian’s creativity and innovation, and the extremes to which he goes to get the sounds out of his head and onto a record. “Two bass lines in two different keys? How does that work?” asks bass player Carol Kaye (Teresa Cowles). “It works in my head,” Brian responds.
In a gasp-inspiring moment, Brian’s father – who once hit Brian hard enough to cause permanent deafness in one ear – announces he’s sold the rights to the Beach Boys' music for $750,000. “Five years from now, no one is going to remember you or the Beach Boys,” Murry (Bill Camp) says. In another illustration of their abusive relationship, he insinuates that this was retaliation for his sons firing him as their manager. “Now, maybe we can be a family again,” he tells a shell-shocked Brian.
Melinda is delighted to finally be on a date without the supervision of Landy, until she learns it is the doctor’s son who is at the helm of their boating excursion. Brian suggests they jump overboard and swim to his house for some privacy, but the sudden burst of independence is short-lived. Brian wakes scared and childlike, begging her to leave before Landy – who we learn is lording legal guardianship over him – finds them there together.
Like a gun in a Chekhov play, nothing is wasted in the scene that offers our first glimpse of the '80s-era Brian Wilson. Six minutes in, a sheepish, shoeless Brian is shopping for a new car when he meets his future wife, the beautiful and empathetic Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter. It’s Melinda who eventually helps extract him from under the thumb of his Machiavellian manager and psychiatrist, Eugene Landy. Along with bodyguards, Landy watches the couple’s every move.