Back in the 1970s, when Beach Boy Mike Love had a place on Mesa Lane, there was often a van parked outside it with a bumper sticker that read: “I brake for Brian Wilson.” That used to be funny. Age has only deepened the head Beach Boy’s appeal, and in later decades, cutting-edge bands from XTC to Animal Collective have immersed themselves in Wilson’s choral aesthetic and lush orchestra experiments. “California Girls” turned 50 this year and still sounds absolutely new. And then there is this sweetly overbaked biopic, melodramatic and full of beauty, meant to make us all feel guilty we ever mocked Brian the Bard of Hawthorne — more sinned upon than sinner, more genius than washed-up recluse.
Love & Mercy begins properly inside Wilson’s head. After flashes of imagery, the screen stays dark — you wonder if the projectionist has gone on surfari — while the soundtrack swims with snippets of Wilson’s music, ranging from his early synthesis of Chuck Berry and The Four Freshmen to the late LSD-inspired sound gardens. It’s an overture, like movie epics used to have, and it prepares us perfectly for a film chronicling a man plagued and inspired by voices. The rest is told in crosscut style — like the James Brown biopic Get on Up — skipping between Wilson’s early days (Paul Dano) and later post-breakdown self (John Cusack) under the spell of evil Dr. Landy, played forcefully by Paul Giamatti. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks steals the show as his heroic second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, battling Wilson’s villains, of which Mike Love is one.
It’s all fascinating but a bit fussy. The camera swoops and juts meaninglessly, while the odd Buñuelian device of splitting Wilson into two actors seems pointless. (Cusack is good, but Dano is perfect.) The split infers Wilson as schizophrenic, but the movie takes pains to deny exactly this. Clearly, this is an official biography; Brian Wilson produced this rock apologia. But so what? It has great vibrations, and, besides, we know there’s no line between madness and genius; only accomplishments matter in the long run. We ought to stop to admire Wilson’s.