You wanna how much I hated the Beach Boys? When I was fifteen, I won a Beach Boys album as a prize for throwing three balls through a hole in a wall, and I cried. What was I going to do with a Beach Boys album? Play it? I guessed I would have to. Otherwise, my winning the game would have been worthless. I had been hoping to win a free trip to Portland. Instead I got a Beach Boys record. You might think that wasn’t anything to cry about, and I suppose you’re right, but I cried anyway.
I never knew that band leader and primary songwriter Brian Wilson had suffered a major nervous breakdown when the Beach Boys rejected “Smile,” the music he composed at home while they toured the world in 1967. Although snippets of the unfinished work were released as “Smiley Smile,” the album was never fully realized. Then, 37 years later, with the help of keyboardist Darian Sahanaja from the band the Wondermints, a rejuvenated Wilson resurrected the lost project.
I first learned about Wilson’s troubled life from the excellent 1995 documentary, “Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Ten years later, I boned up on the story of his long dormant and finally finished album “Smile” in preparation to review his comeback concert at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Although I didn’t share the rest of the world’s opinion of Wilson’s genius, I admired the guts it took him to go out and face the crowds, and gave him an overly favorable review which described the concert as “a breathtaking example of Wilson’s choral writing. With seven voices at his disposal, Wilson took his famous vocal sound beyond the doo-wop limitations of his Beach Boys days. For the next 45 minutes, he stood behind a keyboard singing the lead vocals while lush harmonies surged and swirled through the theater.”
Now, another ten years has passed, and we have before us a fictional dramatization of Wilson’s struggles with the voices in his head, his band, his music, his doctor, and his girlfriend. Having already immersed myself in his story, I had little interest in seeing the movie, but finally relented and checked it out. “Love & Mercy” turns out to be pretty damned good. Mostly on account of the acting by John Cusack and Paul Dano.
The script is divided between scenes depicting Wilson’s early breakdown and those preceding his recovery. Dano plays the young Wilson and Cusack the mature one. The actors are so different physically that there is never any doubt where we are in terms of the flashing between past and present. Both give exceptional performances, with Dano more closely resembling Wilson physically, but Cusack doing a fine job with the touchy job of capturing the precarious fluctuations of Wilson’s inner self.
Like too many biographical films, “Love & Mercy” is structured in a way that allows it to end at any point in the subject’s life, with the remaining years tacked on via a paragraph or so on what happened after the end of the movie. I dislike this way of pretending to resolve a story. It is a cheap way of cheating the audience out of a satisfying ending, but it has become the norm, so we will have to get used to it.