Love and Mercy tells a two tracked story of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, shifting between the 60s and 80s. The film avoids the cliches of most rock bios and stays focused on the mystery of the creative process, established in the opening shot of Brian quietly working out a song on the piano.
Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson at the height of his creative powers during the making of Pet Sounds and his unfinished album Smile (eventually completed in 2004). John Cusack plays the middle aged Wilson struggling to regain control of his life.
The best scenes recreate the making of the Pet Sounds, which many consider the greatest rock album ever made. The complex arrangements and multi-layered harmonies were unlike anything on a rock record up to that point. Pet Sounds proved a creative breakthrough for Brian, but the other members were unhappy with the new sound, especially Mike Love who preferred the old pop formula, snidely observing "critics don't buy records."
Eventually pressures from his jealous father Murray Wilson, skeptical band mates, and the heady scene of 60s California drove Brian into drugs and paranoia. While tales of addiction and comeback are a staple of rock bios, Brian's case stands out as especially tragic, since he spent years unable to leave his bedroom or write music.
John Cusack, credited as "Future Brian", gives a quiet, contemplative performance. He's recovered his mental health, but still in a fragile state. Paul Giamatti as Brian's Dr. Landy dominates every scene, a creepy charlatan who exploited his patients and micromanaged every aspect of their lives. Elizabeth Banks plays Wilson's future wife, who offered him understanding and stability.
Brian Wilson's music endures. Love and Mercy should inspire everyone to go out and buy Pet Sounds.