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Love and Mercy is an imaginatively conceived and moving portrait of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.
The film shifts back and forth through time, using two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, to portray Wilson both at his 1960s height and as a damaged, lost soul in the 1980s.
But, rather than being shown how Brian became what he became, we see that he's always been much the same: Musically brilliant, gentle and kindhearted, but assailed by depression, auditory hallucinations and other issues of mental illness.
From his youth into middle age, he is also consistently exploited by those around him. By his abusive stage dad Murray, by label bosses and his bandmates who want him to be "more commercial," and even by his own psychologist, Eugene Landy, who kept him trapped in a fog of medications for years while making money off Wilson's recordings and "autobiography."
It's a sad story that's constantly redeemed by Wilson's ability to stay positive and persevere. When he meets his future wife Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks), he's a broken man. Landy, who keeps Wilson drugged and under surveillance by goonish assistants 24 hours a day, has shattered Wilson's creative spirit, his confidence and independence. Yet, there's still a glimmer there: a goofy sense of humor, flashes of musical brilliance, hints of Brian's true self. By reaching out to Melinda, he's reaching for a way out, and she helps pull him the rest of the way.
The film never loses focus despite the time shifts and despite using two actors that don't look much alike. Dano is bright, energetic and awkward as the young Brian -- excited by his musical discoveries and hurt and confused when his dad and bandmates don't understand them. Cusack's performance is quiet and understated, built on subtle body language that reflects the older Brian's lost and defeated state. It's a testament to both actors, and to the film's direction, that we consistently see them as the same man.
The film always seems real. Unlike most bio-pics, with their parade of bad wigs, period music and headlines to tell us "when" in the story we are, we feel genuinely in the 1960s when Dano is on-screen. The clothes, sets, cars and hair are all just right, not cheesy.
The studio scenes, which depict, mostly, the recording of Wilson's brilliant Pet Sounds album, are spot on. If you're a musician, or if you've seen the documentary "The Wrecking Crew" about the studio musicians Wilson worked with, you'll be amazed by the authentic details. All the gear -- amps, guitars, studio equipment -- is just right. The scenes convey the giddy excitement of creativity, as Wilson dictates his ideas to the musicians and they play music unlike any previously heard.
The other performances are all remarkably good. Banks isn't the crusading savior. She's just a normal woman trying to figure Brian out and unsure about how to help him. Paul Giamatti is both menacing and ridiculous as Dr. Landy: a dork who's managed to latch onto, and take control over, a much better and more-talented man's life. The smaller roles, including Jake Abel as Mike Love and Johnny Sneed as the great studio drummer Hal Blaine, are also well-played.
If you're a Wilson/Beach Boys fan, you'll be pleased by the authenticity of the film and its faithfulness to the facts. But even those unfamiliar with Wilson are likely to be moved and inspired by his story.