Love & Mercy: The Beach Boys and the Brian Wilson Story

The new biopic about The Beach Boys' frontman is an intriguing, if often dark look at the legendary musician.

By Robert Moeller Published on June 25, 2015

My father, like many who came of age in the late 1960’s, had a very important choice to make in high school: The Beach Boys or The Beatles? Even within his own suburban Minneapolis household — his older sisters adored The Beatles — the battle lines of pop-culture allegiances were being drawn.

While no one denies the enduring greatness of The Beatles, I, for one, am glad that I was raised by a Beach Boys man.

Like many young evangelicals who came of age in the 1990’s, my parents were “cautious” when it came to the type of music my siblings and I consumed. But instead of banning everything that didn’t have DC Talk written on the front of it, my dad encouraged me to explore much of the music he had enjoyed as a young man. I would spend hours reading and doing my homework with the local “Oldies” station in Chicago (104.3 FM) blaring into my headphones. I discovered Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and, of course, The Beach Boys. The first CD I ever purchased with my own money was All Summer Long and I listened all the way through a thousand times.

The Beach Boys’ music made me feel good inside. It was exciting and enticing. I wanted to live where they lived in southern California (and now, ironically, I do). There was something vibrant and life-affirming in their songs, even if the lyrics were about little more than riding the waves or being bummed that your parents took the keys to your car away.

So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that in 2015 there would finally be a feature-length film, Love & Mercy, about the life and times of Beach Boys’ frontman, Brian Wilson. What’s more, the pre-release buzz about this movie had been nothing but enthusiastic.

I was able to see the film the other day. There are things I might have changed, but I wasn’t disappointed. It follows parallel timelines in Brian Wilson’s life. The first includes the few years surrounding and during the making of the Pet Sounds (1966) and Smile (1967) albums. Interwoven throughout are extended glimpses into Wilson’s life in the 1980s after he had gone through a substance abuse treatment program and was attempting to turn his life around.

Portrayed by Paul Dano, the 1960s timeline reveals the beginning of his emotional, psychological and chemically-fueled breakdown; his increased dabbling with hallucinogenics;  the pressure Wilson felt from his family and friends to produce hit records (while striving to push himself artistically); and the misplaced guilt he felt for firing his domineering, abusive father as the band’s manager and producer.

The 1980s timeline, portrayed by John Cusak, shows us the tragic results of all this. Now in his 40s, Wilson has found a new domineering father figure — his doctor/psychiatrist/music producer Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) — who micro-manages every detail of his life. Under the guise of “just trying to help,” Landy has become a tyrant who forces Wilson to cut off communication with his ex-wife, children, siblings and bandmates. He feeds him medications that he does not need. And, out of the goodness of his heart, Landy has given himself control over Wilson’s money and estates.

In the midst of this depressing situation enters Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a saleswoman at a Cadillac dealership who meets Brian Wilson when he enters her showroom to buy a new car. The rest of the film becomes a battle of wills between Ledbetter and Landy as the former attempts to convince Wilson of the latter’s undeniably nefarious intentions.

Love & Mercy, like other biopics about famous musicians, follows a fairly traditional story arc. Success. Fall. Redemption. And just like Ray or the Johnny Cash film Walk the Line, many moviegoers walk into the theater with a certain degree of familiarity with the subject matter. We know when Ray Charles is battling heroin as a younger man that he eventually will kick the nasty habit because we are watching the film forty years after those events transpired.

But we don’t go see movies like Love & Mercy to be surprised by the ending. We go because we are intrigued by the idea of getting an intimate glimpse into the trials and triumphs of artists that mean something to us. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys were voices of a generation. Their music endures, and for good reason.

The film is rated a strong PG-13 for some language, drug use and intense scenes of verbal/psychological abuse. This is not a movie for kids, and I would say that it is here where the movie falls a tad short. Instead of opening up Brian Wilson (and his band) to a new generation of fans like Walk the Line and Ray did last decade, Love & Mercy is bit too abstract and intense to attract the young moviegoers who would otherwise be purchasing songs on their iPhone from the film they are watching before they leave the theater.

If you already love Wilson and The Beach Boys, you will want to see Love & Mercy. The rest of you should go download Pet Sounds and enjoy!

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