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Just when you feel “No, I can’t take it” about another truth-based rock drama addressing the tears and horrors of fame — another Ray or Walk the Line (oh those poor singing millionaires) — along comes the best in memory. As drama Love & Mercy barely even needs dramatic embellishment. Brian Wilson, played in alternation by Paul Dano (young) and John Cusack (fiftyish), was a mentally troubled songwriter. Initially obsessed with unshackling himself from the fun-and-surf style of the chart-topping Beach Boys, he then came under the spell of Dr Eugene Landy, a creepy guardian/therapist who made a killing, near-literally, from mis-prescribing medication.
Paul Giamatti, wearing a hairy-tarantula wig, plays this Svengali with all sails bellied out. It’s the film’s only touch of histrionic hyperbole, though the script developed by Oren Moverman (of the semi-surrealist Dylan biopic I’m Not There) from an original by Michael Lerner sails close to “crazy” more than once.
Why not? You couldn’t write Wilson’s story as fiction: it sounds like multi-carat kitsch, edged with melodrama. Beach song balladeer wants to write serious music testing the limits of harmony and lyric. Bandmates say: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Brian heads for his soul’s dark midnight anyway, though at about 10.30pm he gives his group “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows”, massive hits with new musical wiring. Then it’s off to the pills, Landy’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (later discredited) and a risible-sounding ambition to write a game-changing album of serious pop. Which of course Wilson finally did: Smile.
There were madder developments still in the life of Brian. He was saved by the love of a car dealer. Cadillac salesperson Melinda Ledbetter, played with charm and smarts by Elizabeth Banks, fell for the rock-world weirdo, listened to the secret drums he marched to, worked to expose Landy, finally married her man. Only in a movie? It ought to be.
Paul Dano looks like Wilson, helped by another wig in a film that must have been Christmas for toupee weavers. Dano’s whispery buzz of a voice and distrait body language are perfect. John Cusack, though no lookalike, gets into a kindred acoustic: he’s sweet, fragile, breathy, nervous and driven as if by some invisible dream. Director Bill Pohlad knits that dream concept into the film’s visuals. He gives them the heightened sheen and shifting planes of colour and texture — Hockney-holistic — that make reality seem poised, continuously, on a diving board into unreality.