Review: LOVE & MERCY (SXSW)

By Laurie Coker

Rating: A

At SXSW this year, I had opportunity to meet John Cusack and Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, who were in town to promote their movie Love & Mercy, a biopic about the life of Wilson and the doctor who nearly ruined it completely. As a fan of the Beach Boys, I made sure I saw them in concert at least once. I followed some of the news surrounding the band and in particular the Wilson brothers. While at first I was put off my Cusack playing Wilson, as the movie progressed, I realized my personal image of Wilson was of the younger man and not the older one caught in mental turmoil.

Director Bill Pohlad, who was also on hand for the press conference, captures the film’s settings and time period perfectly. Audiences are transported back and made privy to the life of a creative genius whose abuse of drugs (some prescribed by a man who sought to control him) drove him to the edge. Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson with precision of character and Elizabeth Banks, as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who almost single-handedly saves Wilson, is fantastic.  Melinda became Wilson’s wife. In fact, the ensemble cast shines, including a substantially creepy Paul Giamatti, who portrays Eugene Landy, the man who traps Wilson in a world of fear and anxiety, controlling his life and his finances.

Cusack carries most of the weight in this film. Once I stopped seeing Cusack and instead, Wilson when he had lost his way tremendously, I became fully engaged. Wilson’s story should be told. He is a musical savant in many ways and although he sounds a bit like Ozzy Osbourne when he speaks these days, he is worthy of our attention. Banks, too, carries a heavy load. After Melinda meets Brian at a Cadillac dealership, she slowly is drawn to the broken man and works to free him from his shackles of personal terror.

Pohlad moves us between Wilson young and old, managing to never lose his story line. We meet his abusive father and we get to know more about the Beach Boys too. Having opportunity to listen to the panel at SXSW, after the screening, gave us an even more in depth look into the mind of Brian himself.  I was, however, saddened by the state of Wilson, who looks and acts far older than he is. Life took its toll.

Wilson still composes and performs. His personal and professional life are now his own and he lives happily with Melinda. “God only knows” what he would have done or where he would have been without her. She worked tirelessly to free the man from the clutches of Landy and she fell in love. I am placing an A in my grade book for Love and Mercy. It was one of my favorites from the festival.

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