Over the years I've spent nearly as much time watching movies, miniseries and documentaries about the Beach Boys as I've spent listening to their music. The group's story is mesmerizing and so ironic — such happy songs coming from such sad people. Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis were bullied by Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), their abusive father. No matter how well they did, he belittled them. Big brother Brian received the worst of it, including physical abuse that took some of his hearing.
The Beach Boys gained fame celebrating surfing, but Dennis was the only member of the group that actually surfed. He was the most handsome and outgoing, but his father often reminded him that he wasn't as smart or talented as Brian. He became a drunk. Charles Manson and his girls glommed onto Dennis for a little while — a fact that dogged him for the rest of his short life.
Poor Dennis is but a background player in Love and Mercy. The Bill Pohlad drama focuses squarely on Brian. The first is set in the '60s, as Brian (played by Paul Dano) goes into the period that would produce the landmark album Pet Sounds and the tune "Good Vibrations," one of the very best pop songs ever made. The guys in the band were mystified over Brian's work at the time, but he remained focused on his vision, and competing with the Beatles' releases. The pressure was intense as Brian set out to create his followup — a concept album that would be called Smile. He ended up having a breakdown.
Cut to the '80s, where Brian (played by John Cusack) is under the control — completely — of therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When Brian makes a pass at a Cadillac dealer named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a relationship begins that Landy tries to end. Melinda realizes that Brian is a wildly overmedicated prisoner, but faces tough challenges, including Brian's self-defeating mental state, in trying to rescue him.
I spent most of Love and Mercy being pissed off: at Murry Wilson, at Eugene Landy, and to a much lesser extent, at Beach Boy front man Mike Love (Jake Abel), for being such an abrasive jerk. I started to get mad at musician and Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks (Max Schneider), but the film paints him as such an utter dipshit that I just felt bad for him. Brian made me mad too, for being messed up for so long. Stupid me.
Love and Mercy isn't easy to watch. The part you most want to see doesn't come until the end, of course. Before that there's so much pain. But the film is well assembled, well acted and as moving as it is frustrating.