Review: John Cusack and Paul Dano give voice to Brian Wilson’s broken soul in ‘Love & Mercy’

TORONTO – One of the most original interpretations of the music biopic in recent years was 2007's “I'm Not There,” in which no less than six actors played different versions of Bob Dylan. Directed by Todd Haynes, the film used the different actors as a way of getting to the essential truth about an artist renowned for reinventing himself.

The co-writer of that film was Oren Moverman, and now he's the co-writer of “Love & Mercy,” a beautiful new movie that once again refuses to fall into the formula that hobbles so many biopics of any kind. The cliches of the genre are so pervasive that Jake Kasdan's “Walk Hard” essentially destroyed the entire form for me. Ultimately, I think the best way to approach any biopic is to pick a moment that you feel illuminates the subject in a way that allows you to narrow in, focus, and tell a story that isn't just a greatest hits condensed into two hours.

In the case of “Love & Mercy,” they picked two.

Directed by Bill Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” focuses on two key moments in the life of famed Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson. First, we meet the Brian (Paul Dano) at the height of his creative powers as he struggles with the recording of both “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” and little by little, we watch as the process eats away at his sanity. Then we meet Wilson (John Cusack) as an older, damaged man who almost seems to have regressed into emotional childhood under the care of the abusive Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), just as Wilson meets Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), the woman he eventually married.

In essence, we get to study Brian's break with sanity and his eventual healing, but by keeping the focus tight on these two moments, the film becomes emotionally exhilarating. This is a dark story at times, and there is an undercurrent of sadness that is hard to shake off, but it is also a story about just how incredibly important love can be to the overall well-being of any person. Just not Mike Love, because he was a raging asshole. Sorry… it's hard to resist a pun about him and his behavior, not least of which is because Jake Abel does such a good job playing him.

For those not already intimately familiar with the Beach Boys and their story, they were a huge chart-topping sensation quickly, and they were largely a family act, initially managed by their demanding, some might say domineering father. Bill Camp offers up a memorable portrait of Murray Wilson, but by the time the film starts, he's already been fired as their manager, and that lingering resentment is part of what the film deals with. It certainly fuels Brian as he creates, and no matter how angry he gets or how hurt he is, some part of him wants the simple validation of his father saying to him, “Nice song,” something with ego and business is never going to allow to happen again.

The film does an exquisite job of detailing the way an artist can get lost in the act of creation. For Brian, there is a drive to stay ahead of The Beatles, especially once they hit the “Rubber Soul” era, but it goes deeper than that. Essentially deaf in his right ear from being beaten by Murray, Brian hears music and voices in a non-stop cascade. He writes music to try to get it out of himself to try to find some sort of solace or silence. When he begins to embrace the more experimental sounds, he scares the rest of the band, and it's Mike Love in particular who is horrified by where Brian is going. He wants to keep making records about surfing and sunshine and girls, and he thinks it is a simple formula, something they can keep doing over and over and over. Brian writes from a place of honesty, though, so as he embraces the use of LSD and pot and starts to push internally, so do his lyrics.

The film uses its split structure to show just how deep the damage went so that when we watch Wilson try to find his way out of it, we understand just how hard that's going to be. When he meets Melinda Ledbetter, she's a car salesman and he's looking for a new Cadillac. She doesn't recognize him, and it's not until Landy comes in and starts throwing around Wilson's whole name and history that she understands who she's been talking to during the sale. By this point, Wilson is soft-spoken and moves and talks like he's underwater, like everything else is far-away. It's been a long time since a John Cusack performance has hit me this way, and I admire the fact that both he and Dano eschew make-up in their roles. This isn't about burying them under rubber to try to make them look like the same person. They are each shining a light on one part of who Brian Wilson is, and it's only taken together that he really snaps into focus.

It's a brutally tough role that Elizabeth Banks is playing here, because there's nothing particularly showy about Melinda. She's just a woman who recognizes something very real that is buried beneath the drugs and the bullshit that Landy keeps pumping into Wilson, and who makes the decision that this man is worth fighting for, worth pulling out of this strange prison, and who loves him enough that she is able to reach him. The showy role is Landy, and Paul Giamatti makes a full meal of it. He's contemptible in the film, and I loved every second of his screen time. We don't ever have to see a scene where we get Landy's explanation for his actions; it comes through loud and clear in the way he hovers, the way he imposes himself into every second of the budding relationship, the veiled threats. More than that, though, it comes through in one particular scene, in which a terrified Wilson tries to get Melinda to leave his house after they've made love because he knows Landy will return soon. It is heartbreaking and awful and the fear that pours off of Wilson in waves would be enough to make most people run for the hills. Banks does an amazing job of showing us the strength that makes Melinda stay, and the love that makes it worth it, and it may be the most subtle thing she's ever done on film.

The score by Atticus Ross wraps around the vintage Beach Boys songs and their various elements in a way that is both supportive and spare, never once overwhelming the movie or trying to ladle on cheap unearned sentiment. Robert Yeoman's photography for both time periods is spot on, driven more by emotional needs than pre-packaged nostalgia. Every department gets it right, from make-up to costumes to production design, and Bill Pohlad has certainly surrounded himself with a laundry list of top talent.

In the end, though, none of this works if we don't care about Brian Wilson, and Paul Dano and John Cusack both do sterling work as the two halves of this broken soul, drawing us in and making us care, so that when we do finally get a chance to see the real Brian Wilson at the end of the film, singing “Love & Mercy” live, it is thrilling and almost overwhelmingly beautiful. It is the happiest of happy endings, because it is the most human of happy endings. Love conquers all, and mercy can heal the world.