SXSW review: ‘Love and Mercy’ looks at the two Brian Wilsons

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John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in "Love and Mercy"

Both literally and figuratively, Brian Wilson had a sound in his head. Perhaps sometimes it was a sound of almost terrifying beauty, perhaps sometimes it was just terrifying. But it was there and who knows how close the Beach Boys’ record ever came to completely capturing it. But however close Wilson and the Boys got yielded some of the most gorgeous pop compositions of their era.

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in "Love and Mercy"

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in “Love and Mercy”

In Bill Pohlad’s “Love and Mercy,” the new Brian Wilson biopic that screened Sunday during SXSW Film, Paul Dano, all side-combed hair and striped T-shirts, plays the ’66 era Wilson, when the gorgeous outweighed the terrifying and Wilson recorded such stunners as “Sloop John B, “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney allegedly called the most beautiful song ever recorded and you better believe the line is in there). Even the veteran L.A. studio musicians in the legendary Wrecking Crew are blown away by Wilson’s talent for melody, harmony and arrangement. The guy is just better at this than everyone else. He is not normal.

Skip ahead 20 years and Wilson is played (at least looks-wise) with a very Chevy-Chase-as-Gerald-Ford vibe by John Cusack. This is the period when the terror in Wilson’s head outweighed the beauty and Cusack’s Wilson looks lost and hobbled.

When Wilson goes into a Cadillac dealership, he ends up chatting with a friendly woman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, always excellent), he is soon accosted by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), the psychiatrist under whose control Wilson flailed for years. Wilson leaves a piece of paper with Ledbetter that simply says “lonely scared frightened.” Misdiagnosed (perhaps intentionally?) as a paranoid schizophrenic, Landy has Wilson under his thumb utterly.

“Love and Mercy” toggles between these two Brians — the Brian whose band had just recently left the control of Wilson’s abusive father, enabling Wilson to grow creatively, and the Brian fully under the control of Landy, another abusive father figure.

The period detail, especially in the ’60s scenes is sharp and the other Beach Boys, minimal though their roles are, look spot-on (kudos especially to Jake Abel, who both looks exactly like Mike Love and handles an unenviable part with precision).  And Pohlad streams walls of sound in an out of the scenes, piles of instruments in the score move through the moments with psychedelic verve. Of course, the other Beach Boys, especially Mike Love, don’t want to mess with the formula. It’s only when “Good Vibrations” sells big, following up the American commercial failure of the now-classic “Pet Sounds,” that everyone seems back on board.

But the film is also Lebetter’s story as much Wilson’s; if anyone is cast the hero here, Ledbetter is. Creeped out by Landy’s druggy abuse and genuinely falling for Wilson, Ledbetter tirelessly campaigns to free Brian from Landy’s endless stream of pills and emotionally violent recording sessions. Giamatti is as sleazy as you might expect, a being of pure snake oil in pastel shirts.

“You deserve normal,” Lebetter says to Wilson. But Brian Wilson was never, ever going to be normal. He had a gift that never quite allowed him to be normal and a father who never quite let him feel safe. Through smart, thoughful structures, “Love and Mercy” avoids a lot of biopic pitfalls and does its level best to unpack one of the most gifted men in American music.

Not enough “God Only Knows,” though.

“Love and Mercy” screens again 3:45 p.m. Tuesday at Alamo Lamar.

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