TIFF 2014: John Cusack Has Good Vibrations as Brian Wilson in ‘Love & Mercy’
‘Love & Mercy’ – which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival – isn’t the first movie to try to explore the life of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. There was the 1990 television movie ‘Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys,’ which told the story from the late Dennis Wilson’s perspective. Then there was the more expensive-looking, but still made for television ‘The Beach Boys: An American Family’ that aired in 2000. So, yes, we’ve seen Brian Wilson’s mental health dramatized before.
What we haven’t seen is Wilson’s eventual recovery. I mean, the guy has been touring pretty regularly over the last few years, so something had to change. What ‘Love & Mercy’ does is both, jumping back and forth between Wilson (Paul Dano) during the Beach Boys’ heyday – beginning right before they recorded ‘Pet Sounds’ – and Wilson (John Cusack) as he is in the mid-1980s, a broken man under the care of (and being manipulated by) Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
The Beach Boys themselves are represented, but it’s not their story. When the film opens, the band is in full gear – this isn’t a Beach Boys origin story. (Those television movies do a fairly good job of handling that story.) When Brian is writing and recording ‘Pet Sounds’ – which, of course, went on to become one of the most critically successful albums ever recorded – the band is touring in Japan, but we get to watch the painstaking brilliance in the recording studio as Wilson works with session musicians. (And, when the band returns, we get to watch a pretty glorious recreation of the ‘Sloop John B’ promo video.) And we do, again, watch Wilson’s descent into oblivion – but under first time director Bill Pohland, it’s just better done.
The other half of the story is what’s not quite as well known. John Cusack (who, thankfully, is in full “I give a shit” mode here), as opposed to Dano, takes a little bit of time to get used to as Wilson because, well, he just looks a lot like John Cusack. The dynamics at play between Wilson, Landy, and Wilson’s new love interest, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) are heartbreaking. The story is told from Ledbetter’s perspective and, as you might expect, the story isn’t kind to Dr. Landy. Real life reports do credit Landy with helping curb Wilson’s drug addiction, but in the process he destroyed Wilson as a person – controlling every aspect of Wilson’s life, including serving as his manager.
Thankfully, the music is here. The actual Beach Boys recordings are used in the film – and we watch Wilson’s manic intricacies as he fine tunes every sound – at one point, Wilson brings dogs into the recording studio for barking sounds on ‘Caroline, No,' and it would be impossible to appreciate what’s happening without actually hearing the music.
I do wish Jake Abel was in the movie just a little bit more as Mike Love, just because the dynamic between he and Dano’s Wilson is so pivotal and so interesting. Love isn’t a musical genius like Brian Wilson, but he knew a hit record when he heard one. Love is portrayed as disliking ‘Pet Sounds’ because he knew it wouldn’t sell. He knew there wasn’t a hit song on the album. This isn’t exactly true, it just didn’t sell as well as past albums (and ‘Sloop John B’ reached number three on the charts) – but in ‘Love & Mercy,’ the two seem to be mutually pleased with ‘Good Vibrations,’ an earworm of a song that is also creatively complex.
It’s nice to watch John Cusack be challenged in a role. I suspect directors don’t know quite what to do with him these days. At 48, he’s getting too old to play the charming love interest – and Cusack seems bored by that anyway – so, instead, we’ve seen him in (fun) schlock like ‘Hot Tub Time Machine and ‘2012’ and (bad) schlock, like ‘The Raven.’ Here, Cusack finally gets to act -- and I had almost forgotten that he’s a good actor.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.