Whether or not you’re familiar with the life story of Brian Wilson, Beach Boys leader and troubled genius, Love & Mercy’s story will be a familiar one. How that story is told distinguishes is what the film from a raft of interchangeable musician biopics.
Its potentially conventional rise-fall structure is softened by splitting the narrative between two timelines. In the 1960s, Wilson (Paul Dano) is at the height of his creative powers, producing Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” before the voices in his head drag him towards erratic paranoia. In the 1980s, now played by John Cusack, Wilson’s romance with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is complicated by the controlling presence of sinister Dr Landy (Paul Giamatti). Cleverly, this storyline sidesteps expectations by making Melinda, not Brian, its protagonist.
Love & Mercy’s foundational story arcs, even bisected like this, remain fundamentally familiar. But the film succeeds thanks to director Bill Pohlad’s skilful presentation. The two timelines are distinguished stylistically, with the ‘60s presented like a loose documentary in contrast to the contemporary sheen of Cusack’s storyline. This risk of this divergent approach coming across as two separate films mashed together is avoided thanks to Pohlad’s use of colour – and music – ensuring they feel interlinked. Perhaps more important is the work of Dano and Cusack. They don’t look much alike – there’s no Looper-esque prosthetics here – but their shared aura, a captivating mix of fragility and serenity, keeps you believing that they’re playing the same man.
The real pleasures of Love & Mercy don’t have much to do with plot, anyway. You can spend your time admiring the lead performances; well, except for Giamatti, who well and truly oversells his villainy in an uncharacteristic misstep. Or you can luxuriate in the piece-by-piece construction of Pet Sounds (one of the best pop albums of all time), presented in joyous, rambunctious detail. That same detail is found in the film’s electrifying sound design, helmed by the inimitable Atticus Ross. One particular scene, where the background noise of clinking cutlery slowly builds to a disquieting cacophony – a representation of the growing seriousness of Brian’s hallucinations – is truly astounding.
Pohlad finds his own innovation as the narrative moves into its final act. As each story’s end point becomes increasingly inevitable, we swerve away from the predictable (and presumably tedious) unfolding of the particulars for an impressionistic coda. I certainly wasn’t expecting an extended homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey from a Beach Boys biopic, but I can’t say I was complaining.