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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

"What if I lose it and never get it back?" a young Brian Wilson wonders in the opening moments of this anguished yet hopeful portrait of the Beach Boys' childlike brainchild. It's a haunting question about his musical talent, one that foreshadows the struggle for sanity this harmonizing savant is on the verge of plunging into.

Love & Mercy (also the title of a 1988 single from Brian's first solo album) invites viewers behind the Beach Boys' music with documentary-like detail. The film focuses on two eras in Brian's life: the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions from 1965 to 1971 (as he began to descend from the pinnacle of pop success into the disorienting depths of mental illness) and his chance meeting of a comely Cadillac saleswoman in 1985 (an encounter that would alter the trajectory of his badly broken life).

Let's begin in 1965. The Beach Boys are riding a wave of popularity that rivals The Beatles. In just four years, the Boys (and they really do look like boys here) have released many of their most iconic hits, paeans to the promise of California's perpetually pretty girls, pretty cars and pretty beaches: "Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' U.S.A." "Little Deuce Coupe," "I Get Around" and "California Girls," among many others.

Singer Mike Love (who's a cousin to brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson) is eager to press forward with more of the same. But for Brian, it's not so simple. A crippling panic attack on an airplane is among the first signs that all is not well with the band's creative director. Brian suggests the guys continue the tour without him, which they do, while he stays anchored in sunny SoCal to ponder what will become of Beach Boys 2.0.

Driven by increasingly influential voices and sounds in his head, Brian masterminds what will eventually be considered the band's magnum opus: Pet Sounds. But in the moment, it doesn't sound like anything The Beach Boys has ever done before, and it's not the instantaneous hit previous albums had been. Then, when Brian tries LSD for the first time, his already weakening grip on sanity unravels further—and the sounds he begins marshalling for Smile are even more far out.

Brian is depicted here—accurately, he's said in interviews—as a shy, creative, utterly childlike talent whose creative genius is rooted in the fact that he "hears" (mostly) beautiful things floating in the air around him. But that prodigious talent lies perilously close to the border of severe mental illness. We see (and hear, of course) that Wilson is in touch with a beautiful world only he has access to, but one that also threatens his very sanity at times. We're eventually told he's a paranoid schizophrenic, though end credits say the diagnosis was later thrown out. In addition to the things he hears, Wilson also suffers crippling anxieties and increasingly lives in an emotionally constricting place. When Melinda asks if it's true he once spent two years in bed, he says it was actually three years.

Interwoven through this painful, poignant glimpse at a struggling genius are scenes from 20 years later, in 1985. Brian's a shattered husk of a man, tended to by his constantly hovering psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy. When Brian gets into a new Caddy with an attractive car saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter, however, sparks fly … sparks that will eventually kindle into a deeper—if complicated—romance.

But not before Landy, who's kept Brian in a psychotropic pharmacological fog for years, does his best to prevent Melinda from bringing the broken Beach Boy back into the warmth of the sun.


Positive Elements

Brian Wilson's story in Love & Mercy is a multilayered tale of stratospheric success, mental illness, family dysfunction, emotional abuse and, ultimately, quiet redemption.

It's Melinda who realizes that Dr. Landy has an almost cult-like influence over Brian, and that the man's unyielding "care" of him has much more to do with the psychologist's own narcissism than Brian's wellbeing. Though Eugene does his best to keep Melinda at a distance as genuine love between her and Brian takes root, Melinda's determined to break Brian free of Eugene's control.

Control is indeed an overarching theme here. And we see how damaging it can be when wielded for selfish purposes and through abuse and unchecked ambition. We see how Brian's stricken relationship with his father sets him up to fall under the thrall of Landy. And, again, riding to the rescue, Melinda is determined to try to help Brian without becoming just the next in a long line of people who've sought to pull his puppet strings. Ultimately she displays a clear-eyed love for Brian, despite his significant struggles. And we learn that they are married and adopt five children.

For his part, Brian admits to Melinda that he was not a good husband to his first wife, Marilyn, or a good father to their two daughters because his drug habit. His brothers, Dennis and Carl, say, "We just gotta stick together, brothers. We just gotta stick together. It'll be OK."

Spiritual Content

Someone who gives Brian LSD says it's a pathway to God. Describing the drug to Marilyn, Brian says, "At first it was nothing. And then, everything. I heard music. A whole other kind of music. I saw things you can't see. … Things like God. I saw God, and He showed me everything." Marilyn calls "Good Vibrations" Brian's "pocket symphony to God." But Brian says of his emotional and mental suffering, "It's hell."

A sarcastic reference is made to "black magic." Mike Love touches his forefingers to his thumbs in a mystical Eastern gesture.

Sexual Content

Brian and Melinda eventually consummate their relationship. We see them (clothed) in a shower together, then intertwined on a bed with blankets strategically covering them. Melinda's bare back is visible when she gets out of bed. The couple kisses passionately.

We see Brian in his underwear and women in bikinis. Melinda and other women wear revealing outfits. There's talk of John Lennon having an affair. Landy mentions "hookers."

Violent Content

Brian talks about his dad beating him. A flashback shows the older man socking Brian's ear, a blow that triggered hearing loss. Dad meanly tells his son he thinks the lyrics to "God Only Knows" sound like "a suicide note." We hear about a drowning.

Crude or Profane Language

Two incomplete f-words are mumbled. We fully hear half a dozen s-words. Also: a dozen misuses of God's name, including six paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused six times. Landy calls Melinda a "b--ch" and a "slut." We hear repeated references to "t-ts" and "t-tties." There's one use of "p---."

Drug and Alcohol Content

People smoke cigarettes and cigars, and drink alcohol. Band members (including Brian) toke on a marijuana joint in the studio. Later, most of them smoke a variety of things in a tent in the living room of Brian's house. And, as noted, Brian takes LSD, sitting with a blissed-out smile on his face for hours. Mike Love angrily asks about lyrics Brian's written, "Is this a drug song?" Conversations revolve around the many, many meds Landy has Brian on, meds that functionally tranquilize him.

Other Negative Elements

Landy is verbally abusive to Brian, using harsh, manipulative language. He forces his patient to write and produce a new album, and it becomes clear that the psychologist (who is also Brian's legal guardian) is milking his charge for more money. Murry Wilson is similarly belligerent and belittling.


Love & Mercy poignantly pictures some hard truths. Chief among them is the way it shows how incredible abilities often come inextricably linked to incredible difficulties. In Brian Wilson's case, his ability to hear melodies seemingly floating in the ether is key to his songwriting abilities. It's also what nearly drives him mad. In a powerful way, Love & Mercy plumbs the depths of this treacherous divide between brilliance and insanity.

People will surely quibble over the biographical details in this film, so I'll simply assert that it fervently illustrates the truth that for some people suffering with such conditions, which direction they ultimately go may have more to do with the people around them than their own ability to deal with their encroaching mental illness. Brian isn't capable of coping with his struggles alone. He needs someone like Melinda to lovingly care for him in his weakness, to fan the flame of the musical gift that still flickers. But before he finds her in this film, Brian suffers mightily at the hand of someone else who pretends to help but who's really only interested in sucking dry the financial legacy of the Beach Boys' founding father.

The result is a painful, fascinating and ultimately inspiring movie about one of the most influential songwriters in American history. For Beach Boys fans, especially, it opens a revealing, emotion-charged window into the troubled heart of a man whose many songs are forever and paradoxically linked to an idealized vision of California perfection.

But speaking of idealized, such a summation would do exactly that for this film, which contains wince-inducing misuses of Jesus' name, sensuality and sex, and more than its share of drug references. (Never minding for the moment that you get the distinct impression here that LSD did a dangerous number on Brian.)

Brian Wilson's life has been anything but perfect, even as it has been idealized. He's 72 at the release of this film, which leaves viewers with the idea that it was through the love and mercy of someone determined to help him, not exploit or abuse him, that he managed to come through the thick fog of those years to make music once more. Nice tight bows never translate perfectly to real life, but Love & Mercy at the very least celebrates the idea of that happy "ending."

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Readability Age Range



Paul Dano as Younger Brian Wilson; John Cusack as Older Brian Wilson; Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter; Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy; Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson; Brett Davern as Carl Wilson; Jake Abel as Mike Love; Graham Rogers as Al Jardine; Erin Darke as Marilyn Wilson; Bill Camp as Murry Wilson


Bill Pohlad ( )


Roadside Attractions



Record Label



In Theaters

June 5, 2015

On Video

September 15, 2015

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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