“Love & Mercy,” the bizarre story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, is one of the most touching — and gripping — biopics you will ever see. The film flips between a 1980s present, when the adult Wilson (John Cusack), misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, is drugged and virtually imprisoned by a Svengali-like guru/doctor (Paul Giamatti), and a sunny early career, when the younger Wilson (Paul Dano) is crafting such groundbreaking pop music as “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows.”
The drama is built around Wilson falling in love with his potential rescuer, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), as flashbacks fill viewers in on the happier backstory.
The studio scenes are entrancing, with the quirky, introverted young genius urging a cellist to make his instrument sound “like a propeller” and members of the famous “wrecking crew” sidemen congratulating him as the most creative producer they’ve ever worked with. There’s also a great scene when the boys note the Beatles have copped one of their vocal licks on “Rubber Soul.”
But light moments and blue skies are soon superseded by the dark manipulations of the doctor, who eerily recalls the mental coercions of that era, which the world came to know through Charles Manson.
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Dano, as young Brian, conveys the perfect mix of wonder and interiority — you can hear the music whirring in his head — and Cusack, to his great credit, makes the older Wilson sympathetic while not overacting the zombielike persona he inhabited for so many years. Banks makes you believe that her skepticism, fascination and tenderness have blended into love.
There are so many fine moments in this film and the direction is so crisp, it’s tempting to watch it twice in a row. But it’s still a movie, not a documentary, so it makes things seem like they worked out a little better than they actually did. But hey, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, and this is a feel-good rock-’n’-roll movie all the way.