Sydney Film Festival Review: Love & Mercy (USA, 2015)


The world of music biopic is always a tricky affair. Trying to balance enough rock and roll fantasy and/or exaggeration with reality to create an engaging but honest story about an iconic musician can often serve itself up as a disappointment (De-Lovely and Beyond the Sea are two that immediately come to mind). Focusing on a complicated musician like Brian Wilson – one who has battled mental illness as well as drug and alcohol abuse amidst acclaim and success – only adds to the difficulties a filmmaker can face. 2000’s The Beach Boys: An American Story is the perfect example of a project completely missing the mark. In Love & Mercy, however, Director Bill Pohlad and Screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman have tacked these challenges head on, bringing on board a unique approach to tell Wilson’s unique and important story.

Love & Mercy – a title taken from Wilson’s 1988 song of the same name – takes us through two pivotal moments in Wilson’s life and career. The first, sees Paul Dano play Wilson at the peak of his creative life in the 60s, when Wilson stopped touring with the band to produce what would be later considered the band’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds. And to think he followed that up with one of the band’s most successful releases, Good Vibrations. Tormented by his father, and ridiculed by his cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), Dano portrays Wilson’s genius and mental decline brilliantly, as his abuse of drugs and alcohol helps exacerbate an already fragile mind.

This period is contrasted to Wilson some 20 years later, played masterfully by John Cusack, where he finds himself in the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (an intense performance from Paul Giamatti), a man whose aggressive therapeutic approach to Wilson’s incorrectly diagnosed conditions only accelerates his problems, leading to a period of creative stagnation and isolation. He’s not allowed to do anything on his own or see people without Landy’s consultation and approval. It’s a tragic period in Wilson’s life and something they ensure is a powerful part of the film. There are plenty of thriller elements at play here from a filmmaking point of view.

Enter Elizabeth Banks‘ character Melinda Ledbetter, who works at a car dealership. The two form a friendship, and a relationship, under Landy’s watchful gaze. Disturbed by what’s happening to Wilson, Melinda serves as a catalyst that helps save Wilson from Landy and bring him back to reality – though this is admittedly a greatly simplified version of what actually happened.

The film skips (though alludes to) a lot of the details that sit between the two periods. The suicide attempts, the overdose and his increasingly erratic behaviour while still creating music; the treatments at first seeming to help the singer return to the spotlight (before the mentioned overdose). But unlike a film like Ray (2004) or Walk The Line (2005), which takes you through Ray Charles’ and Johnny Cash’s lives (respectively) primarily in consecutive fashion, the decision to jump between the two specific periods allowed Bill Pohlad the freedom to skip over a lot of the moments in between – focusing on making a solid film, rather than telling the “whole story”. Some clever editing and more psychedelic moments are employed to help fill in some of the gaps.

Like all the music biopics that came before it, how true it is to reality ultimately isn’t important – exaggeration is assumed and licence has to be provided to the editing room, who have done a stand out job in smoothly bringing together the the two time periods into one film. There are some incredible moments of filmmaking here, particularly when it comes to the sound editing and mixing. A bizarre Beatles-esque world of backwards sounds and musical shapes, composed by the infallible Atticus Ross, was a remarkable decision to convey Wilson’s unique mind – balancing both the genius and the struggle he faced with his sanity throughout his career. It sticks with you long after you leave the cinema.

The principle cast are surrounded by superb performances, and have a great script to work with. Jake Abel is fantastic as Mike Love, as is the rest of the Wilson family – in particular his famously difficult, abusive and stubborn father Murry Wilson, played by Bill Camp, who according to Wilson (and retold in one of Cusack’s finest scenes in the film), once hit him in the head with a 2×4, resulting in the loss of hearing from his right ear. The film is also shot beautifully – with cinematographer Robert Yeoman mastering every well considered shot. But as with any biopic, the film ultimately rests in the hands of those cast to play the lead role, and Dano and Cusack have approached the difficult character with a skill and precision that is at once heartbreaking and mesmerising. They both deserve Oscar nominations for their performances.

Love & Mercy is not a perfect film, but neither has the life of Brian Wilson. And in the wrong hands, it probably wouldn’t have worked at all (I refer you back to that pretty woeful 2000 production). Ultimately, however, Love & Mercy is a powerful and tragic film about a man who is nothing short of a musical genius; a fact you have no question about when you leave the cinema. The balance between the two periods in his life is masterful, as are the performances from both our leads, alongside the brilliant Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. This is Oscar worthy stuff and a wonderful film. Not to be missed.


Love and Mercy premiered last night at the Sydney Film Festival and has two more screenings before the festival is over. You can check out those details, and grab tickets, HERE.

Love and Mercy opens in Australian cinemas nationally on June 25th.


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.