Ebertfest 2016: ‘Love & Mercy’ for Brian Wilson

In the song “Love & Mercy,” Brian Wilson writes about watching a crummy movie and seeing all the violence that occurs. What we really need is not violence and not news of people hurting, but “Love & Mercy.” To stand against the violence, the horror of daily life as presented by the news and by the mundane loneliness:

“Hey, love and mercy, that’s what we need tonight
So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight
Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight”

“Love & Mercy” was screened during Ebertfest 2016 (April 13-17) in Urbana, Illinois, far away from the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean and the labyrinth of the celebrity industry there.

Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys helped define the California sound in the 1960s, a pop rock sound that at first glorified the sunny life in beach towns of Southern California. The title, “Love & Mercy,”  comes from Brian Wilson’s 1988 debut solo album. Originally, the song was credited to Wilson, Alexandra Morgan and Wilson’s therapist, Eugene Landy. Eventually, this changed and Wilson became the only credited writer. That should tell you something about the movie which presents us with three parallel realities with three Brian Wilsons: The past (Paul Dano), the present bed-ridden (also Dano) and the future (John Cusack).

In the past we follow the young Brian Wilson as he and his younger brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern) with their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) form the Beach Boys in the landlocked city of Hawthorne, California in Los Angeles County in 1961. Although their music embraces the surfers and beach lifestyle, Dennis was the only surfer in the band. As the band becomes more successful, Brian approximates an artificial beach life with his own pool that is a quick jump away from his bedroom and a piano that is set on a tidy sand pit.

The young men chafe under the management of their domineering father Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) who both drove them to success and then attempted to punish them after they sacked him by promoting an ersatz version of them. Brian wanted his music to evolve; others wanted him to stick to a commercial formula.

Brian’s mental state also begins to disintegrate. A panic attack on an airplane leads him to quit the tour, but allows him to work full-time and over in a studio where he eventually produces the Beach Boys’ 11th studio album, “Pet Sounds.”

In the future, Brian  begins courting a pretty female car sales person, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). Dennis is already dead, having drowned in 1983. Carl is still alive, but we don’t see him in Brian’s life (Carl died of lung cancer in 1998). Instead, we see Landy (Paul Giamatti), a man who claims to  have saved Brian from his drug-addicted bedridden present self, but only with loads of drugs and a controlling anger that echoes pere Wilson. This alarms Melinda who is both charmed by Brian, but startled by his admission he had heard voices since 1963.

Jumping between the three realities gives us a sense of instability. We’re unsure of what is real and what is not. Director Bill Polhad doesn’t judge Brian Wilson, but he does present us with a villain, Landy, and a hero, Melinda, and her sidekick, the housekeeper Gloria (Diana Maria Riviera) who gets the necessary evidence to free Brian from Landy. The screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman treats Brian with respect, he’s a lost boy without the love and mercy one might expect from a father and the movie suggests a more sympathetic view of mental illness.

Love & Mercy” is currently available on Amazon Video for $19.99.

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