“Pet Sounds” is one of the quintessential and greatest albums that came out during the ’60s, created from an artistic rivalry between The Beach Boys and The Beatles. After the 1965 release of “Rubber Soul” The Beach Boys responded with an unparalleled masterpiece helmed primarily by Brian Wilson, the focus of this film.
The life of Wilson is shown at two crucial times in his life. The first is him at the height of The Beach Boys fame, creating the music of “Pet Sounds”. He quits touring with the band to focus on this album and begins recording in studio. Voices and sounds go through his head, distracting him, but also being his main inspiration. We see the mental instability of Wilson form here, and it isn’t until he is older that we see the toll it has had on him.
Flash forward twenty years or so to after Wilson’s breakdown where he spent years in bed with almost no human contact. He is being taken care of, medicated, and constantly looked after. Clearly sick, he falls in love with a car saleswoman who attempts to save him from the care he is in.
Younger Wilson around the time of recording “Pet Sounds” is portrayed by Paul Dano and the older, emotionally troubled Wilson from the ’80s is played by John Cusack. The film flashes between these two eras throughout, somehow maintaining a consistent tone and excellent pacing. An all too frequent issue with true story biopics is formulaic storytelling. Sure, it is certainly limited by needing to tell the ‘truth” but it always feel redundant. Love & Mercy‘s concept is ingenious in both its execution and creativity.
Dano’s Wilson was by far the standout performance in this film. The resemblance and presence he brought reminds me of the uncanny similarities of Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison in The Doors. Not once did I get distracted by the fact that Dano was pretending to be someone else. For all I care, he was Wilson. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing for Cusack. I was fully aware that it was Cusack the whole time. That’s not necessarily his fault though, his name and face is much too recognizable to me. He is also consistently giving great performances no matter what he’s in, and there’s no exception here. He was great, he just didn’t become Wilson the way Dano did.
I probably listen to “Pet Sounds” more than any other Beach Boys album, though I knew only a little bit about the history of it before this movie. So when I first saw its trailer and the preview of the in studio recordings, I got more excitement than any other trailer has ever given me. These scenes turned out to be my favorite parts. I know the songs so well, and seeing them come together literally gave me goosebumps. It’s a credit to the entire team behind this film and especially to Dano’s brilliant performance.
Wilson’s life was void of happiness for a long time. Love & Mercy is always reminding you of this. It is quite sad nearly the whole time, probably too much for its own good, and lacks a sense of hope until the last few minutes. There are moments of happiness, but they are temporary and end abruptly. The real life story does give solace though, knowing that there is a happy ending.
If I were to separate this movie into two parts; the peak of Wilson’s talent in the ’60s and his life two decades later, then the prior was my favorite. The ’60s scenes demonstrate the genius of Wilson, and the other show us the low parts of his life. Together, they paint an extraordinary picture of Wilson’s life, providing more insight into one character than most movies I have seen. It jumps around a lot, but is structured magnificently in this way. While only seeing two parts of this man’s life, I feel like I just learned about his whole life.
As a big fan of The Beach Boys and their influence on my favorite genre of music, I was fascinated by Love & Mercy. Seeing the creation of so many great songs was an incredible and visceral experience. Watching the struggle of Wilson’s life later on was heartbreaking at times, reminding me of how much he went through as an innovator. In terms of performances, there are no weak links or any less than satisfactory. I want to recognize Elizabeth Banks as well for her great portrayal of Melinda Ledbetter as well. But no one could match Dano who I can’t praise enough. An experimentally structured film like this one not only turned out better than I would have expected, but elevated the material and lens into Wilson’s life. God only knows where we would be without Wilson and The Beach Boys.