Love & Mercy review

Life of Brian…

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Don’t worry, baby: Pohlad’s biopic is reverent, duly, but also rich, clever, warm and sensitive. Banks and Giamatti provide anchor, Cusack impresses and Dano surfs to glory.

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Life of Brian…

“It should sound like a cry, but sort of in a good way,” says The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s biopic, educating his musicians in the art of sweetly sad pop.

Pohlad’s film picks up the California pop savant’s lesson, loud and clear. Cast in Wilson’s image, Love & Mercy is a cine-song of sun-glazed innocence and bruised experience, surfing between excruciating suffering and extraordinary redemption. It makes you cry, but sort of in a good way.

It learns from Wilson’s cliché-busting ingenuity. After all, any conventional attempt to transcribe his life directly would surely risk bum notes: if it weren’t true, would you believe Wilson’s tale of troubled childhood, genius, mental illness, chemical dependency, ‘radical’ (read: troubling) therapy and unlikely but exultant rebirth?

Pohlad’s solution is to channel Wilson through his songs’ style and subjects, not unlike Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a seven-actor Bob Dylan composite designed to convey his Bobness’ mysterious ways. Pohlad lacks Haynes’ visual pizzazz but he has his writer (Oren Moverman) and two brilliant Brians.

Playing the ’80s-era Brian, John Cusack seems studied initially, a natural live-wire struggling to restrain himself, until that mannered delivery gradually hits Wilson’s strange mix of guarded and disarmingly direct.

But Paul Dano is a revelatory instant hit, a heart-rending picture of puppy-ish innocence wracked with genius.

As Wilson the younger (’60s version) aspires to transfer the symphonic sound-worlds in his brain to peak-Beach Boys LP Pet Sounds, music lovers will get excitations; when the noises from without (bullying dad, peanut-minded bandmate Mike Love) and within (plus copious LSD intake) become too much, his retreat to his home-based sandpit and subsequent breakdown devastate.

Enter the heroes and villains, creepin- a-cardi Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and saintly car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The lines of demarcation are tidily drawn here – manipulative quack, woman holding the car-keys to freedom – but Giamatti and Banks anchor near-clichés in controlled, non-showy conviction. If Wilson’s salvation beggars belief, it isn’t the only miracle on show.

As Pohlad’s elegant 360-degree studio pans show Wilson summoning magic from turmoil, working musicians, hairpins, bicycle bells and even barking dogs, one thing’s certain: you’ll believe in Brian Wilson anew.

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Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.