Love & Mercy review: Bad vibes for the Beach Boys

Surf’s up: Paul Dano, far right, delivers a strong performance as the young Brian Wilson
Surf’s up: Paul Dano, far right, delivers a strong performance as the young Brian Wilson

In this Brian Wilson biopic, the one-time leader of the Beach Boys meets the woman of his dreams and leaves a note for her, which reads: “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” No roses-are-red nonsense from Brian. As he once sang: “I keep looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind.” His mind took risks.

So does director Bill Pohlad. Our hero is played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, two actors who look nothing alike. Dano is twenty-something Wilson, trying to push the band into less sunny territory, earnestly dropping LSD and hearing voices for the first time. Cusack covers the Eighties years, when Wilson — now labelled a paranoid schizophrenic — had become the pampered prisoner of his volatile therapist (Paul Giamatti).

Both lead performances are excellent, but most US critics strongly prefer one turn to the other. I’m on team Dano — his Wilson is a conundrum. Bombarded by unpredictably loud and soft fragments of noise, the pioneering musician, working on Pet Sounds and Smile, resembles a psychedelic version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, so determined to stay on the trail of the unknown that he can’t tune into the pleasures of family life.

Dano is perfectly able to convey lean, mean decadence — as those who saw him as an aspiring rock star in 2012’s For Ellen will know). But this portrait of a wounded narcissist lies elsewhere. You get the feeling Wilson wants to be having orgies but with sugar plums and piano strings. He’s genuinely out of this world. On top of everything else, Dano can sing.

Cusack can’t compete. Magnificently unsettling in early scenes, such as the one where Wilson, in his over-medicated, sing-song voice recounts being punched by his father, he’s unable to overcome the limitations of the script. Saved by the love of a tenacious woman (Elizabeth Banks), this Wilson is a saintly victim. End of story.

A shame, too, that Carl and Dennis Wilson get pushed to the sidelines — they’re just charming airheads here. You suspect that more talented film-makers — Paul Thomas Anderson, say, or David O Russell — would have been able to sneak in the fact that Dennis befriended Charles Manson and cast a more complex light, generally, on Brian’s willingness to be involved in master-slave dynamics. Pohlad’s movie lacks the kind of multi-layered texture it purports to celebrate. That said, it’s still full of mind-altering potential. I’ve always preferred Everly Brothers to the Beach Boys. Thanks to the movie, my ears have been opened.

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