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Bad Vibrations

Roadside Attractions
 121 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano 
Love & Mercy

It’s easy to make a movie about a highly creative person, especially one with a troubled personality, and the more troubled the better. However, it’s very difficult to convincingly portray the creative process on screen. So, instead, we see the artist laboring mightily as he types out page after page or writes line after line of music or feverishly applies brush strokes to canvas. But, at the end of the day, we still don’t know how Hamlet or Ode to Joy or the roof of the Sistine Chapel came about.


In Love & Mercy, on the other hand, the audience gets to see Brian Wilson (Paul Dano), the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, as he works on his greatest creations, the songs that went into the album Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys’ best known (and best selling) single, “Good Vibrations.” The obsessive, perfectionist Wilson commissions a full orchestra to perform the music and added lots of bizarre sound effects, going through dozens of takes in an effort to get the perfect sound. The music takes a physical and mental toll on Wilson, an economic and personal toll on the group, but the album, somewhat of a failure in its day, is now considered one of the best rock albums ever. Classic singles from that album include “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “Sloop John B.” 


Love & Mercy, however, is not a movie about a man and his music, nor is it a conventional biography. It is, instead, a look at a tremendously talented and deeply troubled artist at two key times in his life, some twenty years apart. As a look into a man’s beginning of a descent into mental illness and the beginning stages of his recovery, Love & Mercy succeeds even better than it does as a look at his creative genius.


The film looks at two fairly short periods in Wilson’s life. The first occurs in 1966 and 1967 as a 23-year-old Wilson, experiencing bouts of stage fright, begs off the Beach Boys’ Asian concert tour and instead works on the songs that eventually become Pet Sounds. The second occurs in the late 1980s. Wilson (this time played by John Cusack) by now has suffered a massive breakdown and been placed under the guardianship of a controversial psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy keeps Wilson heavily medicated, and the musician is practically a walking zombie.


Director Bill Pohlad begins with the story of the older Wilson and then intercuts between the two storylines. At the beginning of the film, Wilson wanders into a Cadillac dealership and begins talking with a salesperson, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). She has no idea who Wilson is but is struck by sincerity and vulnerability. When the time comes to buy the car, Dr. Landy arrives to handle the transaction and she realizes for the first time the fragile state of his psyche..


As Melinda continues to see Wilson, she begins to see the influence Landy has over him and just how manipulative and controlling a person the doctor is. Worse, Landy tries to get her to report on Wilson’s activities, ostensibly so the doctor can be sure he’s doing all right. She is able to see through the guise fairly easily and realizes that Landy keeps Wilson medicated as a way of keeping maintaining his rather lucrative status as Wilson’s guardian.


While this is going on, viewers also get to see the younger Wilson as he puts all his creative energy into his album, an effort that distances him from his fellow Beach Boys, his wife, and his friends. Along the way he starts using drugs heavily, and his grip on reality starts to loosen as well. In the first few minutes of the movie, the older Wilson describes his earlier condition, before Landy “cured” him, and mentions how he stayed in his room for a couple of years. As the younger Wilson starts to shatter, audiences can easily see how that could happen.


Because of the tight focus on two short periods of Wilson’s life, the audience does not get to see the gory details of Wilson’s final collapse and how Landy was able to manipulate and gain control over him. Similarly, they aren’t privy to much of Wilson’s formative years when he and his younger brothers were under the thumb of their abusive father. Thus, Love & Mercy is more of a character study than a full-fledged biography. As such, though, it’s still able to suggest many of the key themes in Wilson’s life, such as his increasing drug use, his off-and-on conflicts with cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) about the direction of the group, and his absentee father status.


Most of all, though, we see a man who has definite father issues of his own. When Wilson was working on Pet Sounds, he had finally gotten management control of the Beach Boys from his own father Murray (Bill Camp), but he still felt an almost obsessive need to prove himself to the man. Later on, it doesn’t take a genius to see how Landy was able to step in and assume a fatherly role as well. The movie doesn’t attempt to answer the questions it raises regarding Wilson’s father issues, but it does offer a stark, though understated, view of them.


Understated is actually a good word to use in connection with Love & Mercy as a whole. Neither Dano nor Cusack overplay their roles; the only actor who comes close to doing so in the movie is Giamatti. Instead, the two leads suggest the inner turmoil Wilson faced. This is a tougher task for Dano, since he is playing a man who was not medicated, but was instead trying to deal with the highs and lows of Wilson’s mood swings on his own.


Director Bill Pohlad does have a tendency to rely too much on video montages, which are effective in showcasing the chipper nature of many of the Beach Boy hits, but not so effective later as a means of displaying Wilson’s mental collapse. A late-movie sequence that actually cuts between images of both lead actors in bed to suggest how Dano “became” Cusack completely misses the mark.


The performances in Love & Mercy, however, are absolutely on target. Although Giamatti’s role is showy, he makes a convincingly creepy Svengali, and it’s a pleasant relief to see Banks playing a real character for a change instead of the cartoons she has become in the Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect franchises. The best work, though, are the Oscar-worthy performances by the two leads. The movie is split so evenly between them that one could make convincing arguments as to which is the lead and which the supporting role. There’s no argument, however, that Cusack and Dano combine to make Love & Mercy one of the most convincing onscreen portrayals of a real person in years.   

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Love & Mercy (2014) on IMDb