‘Love & Mercy’ less a movie than a tribute — not to the composer, but his wife

The big mistake of “Love and Mercy” is John Cusack. He’s a great actor. Here, he only confuses the issue and detracts from an excellent turn by Paul Dano.

Standing up for ourselves is a powerful rite of passage. That doesn’t happen here. “Love & Mercy,” while strangely presented as a victory, shows how artistic exploitation dogged one of the world’s most talented persons well into adulthood. When sharks see you as a cash spigot, you better have all your wits about you.

1980s scenes are necessary because that’s apparently when Brian Wilson’s life reached a breaking point. But it’s the ’60s that are the fun. A hot band, producing landmark work, achieving fame and fortune, splintering under the stress of its catalyst.

Maybe it was the stress to produce more hits. Or maybe it was too much fame too soon. Was Brian indulged? Only he and close relatives know for sure. Perhaps his enormous success took a toll on his health and without it, he wouldn’t have had problems in airplanes. “Mercy” takes no position on whether Wilson’s quirks or the LSD enhanced his songwriting; they are presented as simply part of the Brian Wilson package.

It is troubling how the film virtually scoffs at Wilson’s early work, the series of uncanny melodies in the Beach Boys’ initial hits. At best, Brian calls them outdated. At one point he shrugs that surfers don’t like that music anyway. We’re led to believe that “I Get Around” et al. was poison, inciting the vultures to interfere with Brian’s journey to “Smile.”

Pop music writers have observed how quickly the Beach Boys went from vanguard to nostalgia. Their catalog, save for maybe “Good Vibrations,” has never been a part of the classic rock monster that has dominated radio for decades. As radio and pop culture reached back for retro, it stopped around 1965. The Beach Boys are a staple of oldies stations, a tragic outcome akin (on a much different scale) to the people on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon who just missed the last helicopter out.

But they’ve always made money. “Mercy” struggles, as do many films with financial macguffins, to portray why Brian is a target, particularly in the 1980s when he is far removed from the Beach Boys and from writing any sort of pop hits whatsoever. Apparently, he somehow managed to maintain ownership of various lucrative publishing rights that Eugene Landy or any associate would be interested in.

Though an elite actor who undoubtedly captures Brian Wilson’s behavior, Cusack resembles neither the actual person nor the necessary younger portrayal by Dano. It’s almost like two movies are made here. Only one is necessary. Give Dano some makeup, and presto, he’s 43.

That mistake is a sign “Mercy” filmmakers probably didn’t have an actual movie but grasped for another way to push incomplete material across the goal line.

Oliver Stone had a similar problem with “The Doors,” suddenly ad-libbing a bald character representing death to follow Jim Morrison around. Morrison and Wilson were both pop music megastars and enormously fragile, detached, unmotivated by financial success. That is not drama. Perhaps there could be a movie about the pair who presumably had little in common and perhaps never met. It would be something like “Leaving Las Vegas,” the frustration of dealing with an unresponsive person, in these cases freakishly successful persons who don’t care about being successful in conventional ways.

But “Mercy” bears strong parallels to another recent film, “Whiplash.” A talented young musician is hell-bent on pleasing others. One is healthy and normal; the other suffers psychiatric problems. Yet each is compelled to please an authority figure who abuses him. Artistry has a way of doing that.

“Mercy” and “Whiplash” each take the artistry to ridiculous extremes. This is wonderful entertainment, not open-heart surgery.

There is a great parallel in “Mercy” to the Beatles in which the rest of the band is sympathetic. Mike Love, who with many others doesn’t adequately realize the historic possibilities of the band, complains not only that the new songs won’t sell but ... this is what’s valid ... that there is little for the other members to do but add a few vocals. A band of 20somethings can’t exist this way. It happened to the Fab Four. Surely if Mick Jagger had started playing harps and violins, it would’ve happened to the Stones too. As much as Brian was part of the Beach Boys, he needed to move on, much earlier than anyone including himself would prefer.

So, the lede here is buried, just as it is in the movie. “Mercy” is a film about Melinda Ledbetter, a loved one stepping up for a vulnerable person. It’s “Leaving Las Vegas” with a more likable victim and a happier outcome.

3 stars
(June 2015)

“Love & Mercy” (2014)
Starring Paul Dano as Brian Past ♦ John Cusack as Brian Future ♦ Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy ♦ Dee Wallace as Rosemary ♦ Jake Abel as Mike Love ♦ Joanna Going as Audree Wilson ♦ Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson ♦ Brett Davern as Carl Wilson ♦ Erin Darke as Marilyn Wilson ♦ Nikki Wright as Hippy / Doper ♦ Max Schneider as Van Dyke Parks ♦ Tyson Ritter as Hipster #1 ♦ Diana Maria Riva as Gloria ♦ Graham Rogers as Al Jardine ♦ Jonathan Slavin as Phil Spector ♦ Nick Gehlfuss as Bruce Johnston ♦ Bill Camp as Murry Wilson ♦ Michelle Lenhardt as Beach Bikini Girl ♦ Kirstin Masters as Beach Bunny ♦ Johnny Sneed as Hal Blaine ♦ Jeff Holman as Brian Wilson Present ♦ Paige Diaz as Hipster Girlfriend ♦ Meghan Aruffo as Marylin Wilson's friend ♦ Dylan Kenin as Rob ♦ Claudia Graf as Landy's Girlfriend ♦ Erik Eidem as Doug ♦ Tonja Kahlens as Brenda ♦ Jeff Meacham as Tony Asher ♦ Morgan Phillips as Evan ♦ Carolyn Stotesbery as Sarah ♦ Gary Sievers as Classic Car Driver ♦ Wayne Bastrup as Process Server ♦ Violet Leona Paley as Marilyn’s Friend Joanne Spracklen as Mike's Girlfriend ♦ Shaun Rylee Fred Cross as Cadillac Co-Worker ♦ Teresa Cowles as Carol Kaye ♦ Drew Morris as Actor ♦ Jeff Galfer as Hipster #2 ♦ Eric Newnham as Reporter #1 ♦ Mark Strohman as Brian Wilson Look Alike ♦ Alan Mueting as Airline passenger ♦ Jessie Holland as Model ♦ Mark Linett as Chuck Britz ♦ James Crosby as Surfing Extra ♦ Benjamin Hardy as Cadillac Maintenance Man ♦ Larry Greenfield as Session Violinist ♦ Gretchen Duerksen as Diane Rovell ♦ Al Simmons Jr. as Friend of Beach Boys ♦ Troy Williams as Cadillac Customer ♦ Vince Meghrouni as Session Flautist ♦ Brian Wilson as Pedestrian on sidewalk (uncredited per IMDB) ♦ Carnie Wilson as Pedestrian on Sidewalk (uncredited per IMDB)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Written by: Oren Moverman
Written by: Michael Alan Lerner
Based on the life of: Brian Wilson

Executive producer: Ann Ruark
Executive producer: Jim Lefkowitz
Executive producer: Oren Moverman
Producer: Bill Pohlad
Producer: Claire Rudnick Polstein
Producer: John Wells

Music: Atticus Ross
Casting: Sande Alessi, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Editing: Dino Jonsäter
Production design: Keith B. Cunningham
Art direction: Andrew Max Cahn, Luke Freeborn
Set decoration: Maggie Martin
Costume design: Danny Glicker
Makeup and hair: Alessandro Bertolazzi, Cyndra Dunn, Martin Samuel, Zoe Hay, Karen Zanki, Tony Gardner, Richard Redlefsen, Becky Cotton, Victor Del Castillo, Rolf John Keppler, Ursula Hawks
Post-production supervisor: Gerry Robert Byrne
Unit production manager: Paul Lukaitis
Stunts: Jeffrey J. Dashnaw
Special thanks: Brian Wilson

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