The Beach Boys have never seemed cool, but they are arguably America’s most underestimated band. Just listen to Pet Sounds, which revels in almost too much harmony. New musical biopic Love & Mercy details why the Beach Boys were so sonically impressive, as it chronicles the trials of Brian Wilson both in the 1960s with Paul Dano and in the 1980s with John Cusack. This unusual retelling of a musical biography separates Love & Mercy from a genre that has been growingly increasingly stagnant (Ray is Walk the Line is Get on Up is…).
Director Bill Pohlad enlisted I’m Not There screenwriter Oren Moverman (an Oscar nominee for The Messenger), who enlivens the script from the staid biographical formula. For his own part, Pohlad stages the 1960s studio scenes as if they come from a documentary. He and Wes Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Robert D. Yeoman, use Super 8 cameras to capture Dano mimicking Wilson’s studio wizardry. The recording of Pet Sounds and its not-finished-until-2004-follow-up, SMiLE, are the film’s most engaging moments, thanks to the “you are there” style and Dano’s incredible performance. These sequences portend Wilson’s breakdown with inevitability and dread. In one of his best performances in one of his better films, Cusack is more than serviceable as overmedicated Brian Future, though his lack of resemblance can be distancing. Wilson’s caretaker, Dr. Eugene Landy, has no chance and does not deserve one; Paul Giamatti is is terrifyingly cartoonish and controlling at the same time. The Beach Boys rarely get the credit they deserve; again, it’s a cool thing. The Beatles were; the Beach Boys weren’t. Love & Mercy probably will not change that, but if it gets someone new to listen to Pet Sounds, that classic album can change everything.