Love & Mercy ★★★★

"You think we could get a horse in here?" ~ Brian Wilson

I've had the great good fortune to see Brian Wilson perform live twice and in very different stages of his career. The first time he was with the Beach Boys at the May Day Protests in Washington, DC in 1971. I had come there to voice my opposition to the War in Vietnam and hear rock groups like Jefferson Airplane (who cancelled) play Volunteers and Mitch Ryder sing Just a Shot Away. I remember being unhappy with the bubbly California classics. I wanted to hear protest music!

Fast forward 35 years ... In 2006 I managed to get tickets to see Brian Wilson play solo -- 30 of his greatest hits live, including two encores, at the Cannery Casino in Las Vegas. This time, I was knocked off my feet. He was no longer the surf singer ... he was widely acknowledged as one of the most talented composers in American music history. And the last song he played that night? You guessed it: Love & Mercy.

Seeing this sneak preview courtesy of AARP was therefore a very special treat for me. The film covers the period before and between the two times I saw Wilson perform, filling in gaps and adding to my understanding of the hell he had been through as a man, as a musician, and as the victim of quack psychiatry. It's quite a story, and it's delivered very professionally by Bill Pohlad, who is much better known as a producer. In fact, this is his first time in the director's chair since he debuted in 1990.

The younger Brian (1964~75) is played to perfection by Paul Dano, descending into personal madness even as he is discovering his powerful talent. The older Brian (1976~95) is handled a little less convincingly by John Cusak, showing the devastated former celebrity at the mercy of his controllers who include the despicable therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Elizabeth Banks has a stand-out role as Brian's new-found love interest, car saleswoman and former model Melinda Ledbetter, and Brett Davern is excellent as Brian's brother Carl Wilson.

Perhaps the surfeit of of biopics in the run up to the most recent Academy Awards was why distribution of this film was held back. It has some real Oscar-level qualities, but showings have been limited to the festival circuit since its debut at TIFF in Canada last September. It's only this Friday (June 5) that the film will go into mainstream release in the United States. I enjoyed it, and I'll be anxious to see how it fares.

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