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ASTONISHING NEW FEATURE FOCUSES ON TWO PERIODS IN THE BRIAN WILSON SAGA

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: R, Grade: A

God only knows what demons plagued Brian Wilson, but film producer Bill Pohlad (“Into the Wild” and “12 Years a Slave”) teams up with writers Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There,” “The Messenger” and “Rampart”), Michael Lerner (2004’s “Deadlines”) and Wilson himself to grant us a God’s eye view of two pivotal periods in the gloriously tortured life of the musical icon. “Love & Mercy” marks Pohlad’s feature-directing debut, and, especially in Moverman, he found the perfect partner for a radical biopic. Much like “I’m Not There,” which tested the experimental boundaries when it comes to presenting the life of a celebrated musical genius (in that case, it was Bob Dylan) through multiple performative perspectives.

For Wilson’s odyssey, we toggle back and forth through two points. Starting with the early 1960s, we get dropped into what appears to be a fairly traditional biopic scenario. Wilson, played by Paul Dano, who gained weight to round out his face to match the youthful Beach Boy, is hanging on for dear life as the merry-go-round of fame begins spinning out of his control. He’s maintaining his regular appearances with the band—the photo shoots and the tours—but the grind of it all is wearing him down. Wilson comes across as a truly laid-back Californian, groovy and grooving to the sounds in his head, but there’s a slightly depressed edge on his horizon.

He petitions the other Beach Boys to pull out of the current leg of the tour, so that he can stay home and devote his time and attention to studio work on their new album, Pet Sounds. The film shows us the creative process at work, tracking the evolution of “God Only Knows” (a song I consider one of the greatest pop tunes ever written). Pohlad, composer Atticus Ross (who has collaborated with Trent Reznor on several of the latter David Fincher projects) and Dano work visual and audio magic, remixing and re-imagining Wilson’s wizardry. As marvelous as the behind-the-scenes efforts feel, everything breathes thanks to Dano’s lived-in performance, which captures both the creative highs and the escalating psychological lows.

That second period, in the mid-1980s, documents the sad end of the spectrum for Wilson, and it is here where John Cusack steps in. He offers a jarring first impression, in that he physically is so unlike Wilson. But his nuanced turn is revelatory. Cusack is an all-too familiar actor, with over 75 credits in his filmography (from “Sixteen Candles” back in 1984 to “Say Anything” in 1989 to “Bullets Over Broadway” in 1994 to “High Fidelity” in 2000), but we tend to take solid dependability for granted. There has always been the sneaky promise of greatness whenever he appears, although he’s never had that one spotlight role.

In an ideal universe, his version of Brian Wilson would be that opportunity. Working opposite Elizabeth Banks as his emotional savior and future wife Melinda Ledbetter and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy, the malignant force keeping Wilson under his thumb, Cusack exerts a quiet gravitational pull over the audience. He allows us to feel Wilson’s attempts to rise up from tragic depths into the light of human engagement.

The problem for Cusack, though, is that he must share the spotlight with an equally dialed-in performance by Dano, known for holding his own opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” It is not quite accurate to say that Dano has the showier segment, but in his Wilson, we get to see and appreciate the man’s genius in full effect; and that will go a long way towards swaying audiences and Academy voters down the road.

It is definitely not too early to start awards season discussions because “Love & Mercy” digs deep, for scores and emotional gold.