‘Love & Mercy’ traces the journey of tortured Beach Boys savant Brian Wilson

By Michael Aushenker

Brian Wilson (center) with Paul Dano (third from left) and other actors from the movie “Love & Mercy” Photo by Francois Duhamel

Brian Wilson (center) with Paul Dano (third from left) and other actors from the movie “Love & Mercy”
Photo by Francois Duhamel

The Beach Boys’ string of girl-happy chart-toppers in the 1960s gives a recipe for California living that relies heavily on girls, cars, surf and sun.

The flipside of the Beach Boys’ California dream, however, involved a cocktail of nightmarish struggles with schizophrenia, exploitive therapists and prescription drugs that nearly doomed the group’s virtuoso leader, Brian Wilson.

Its title a nod to a 1988 Wilson song, a new biopic called “Love & Mercy” details Wilson’s struggles, portraying the gifted but tortured singer-songwriter during two very different periods of his life: Paul Dano as Wilson in the 1960s, and John Cusack as Wilson in the 1980s.

“Love & Mercy” is the latest in a slew of biopics that in recent years have brought the behind-the-scenes stories of Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Stephen Hawking to the big screen.

The film — which officially premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in limited release in L.A. on Friday — rides giants based on a number of strengths. Perhaps most notable is Dano’s performance as Wilson in the 1960s, when the Beach Boy leader slid from hanging 10 on a string of Billboard hits to his destabilizing mental health issues and alienation from his fellow band members, led by rival Mike Love (a stellar performance by Jack Abel).

Beset by anxiety attacks, sounds in his head and ongoing trauma from childhood physical abuse at the hands of his father (Bill Camp, effective as Murry Wilson), Wilson is rendered a fragile adult by middle age when Cusack portrays him.

Elizabeth Banks brings a lot of heart and energy to her role as Wilson’s future wife, car dealer Melinda Ledbetter, who must help Wilson regain the control over his own life that he has ceded to his therapist.

Cusack coasts on charm as the elder Wilson, and Paul Giamatti does his patented neurotic authority-figure thing dating back to his turn as “Pig Vomit” in the 1997 Howard Stern biopic “Private Parts.”

Directed and produced by Bill Pohlad, “Love and Mercy” arrives with the solid pedigree of Oren Moverman as a co-writer with Michael Alan Lerner.Moverman is the filmmaker who shaped Woody Harrelson into a formidable dramatic star pre-“True Detective” with a pair of powerful pieces, 2009’s “The Messenger” and 2011’s “Rampart.”

“Love and Mercy” is not without some flaws. A self-indulgent device toward the film’s end is overworked. The battle of wills between the Wilson family and the controlling Dr. Landy is over-simplified, reduced for Hollywood purposes to psychologist versus Wilson, with Ledbetter a rescuing angel.

However, the film is very deft at conveying Wilson’s creative process, transcribing music from the cacophony of voices in his head as he collaborates with his Beach Boys brothers as well as lyricist Van Dyke Parks, producer Phil Spector and session musicians extraordinaire The Wrecking Crew (the subject of a recent documentary).

Other strengths include a score by Atticus Ross (best known as Trent Reznor’s collaborator on a slew of soundtracks for David Lynch) and, of course, those shimmering, sun-kissed Beach Boys hits, which sparkle across the film’s 120 minutes.

On an aside, look for the Santa Monica Blue Buses roaring past in the background during scenes taking place at Ledbetter’s apartment.

“Love & Mercy” opens Friday in limited release. See it at the Landmark 12, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; AMC Century City 15, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City; and Pacific ArcLight Beach Cities 16, 8 31 S. Nash St., El Segundo.

michael@argonautnews.com

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