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'Love & Mercy' review: Brian Wilson biopic sings

'Love & Mercy' is the best musical biopic in decades.

Everything that goes right with "Love & Mercy" — it's the best musical biopic in decades — begins and ends with the shadows lurking in the Beach Boys' sunniest hit songs about little deuce coupes and summers with no end in sight.

The movie opens with a beautiful montage, cutting in and out of scenes scored by a series of hit singles at sudden, disorienting junctures. We witness the group's escalating, slightly sheepish fame and its near-mythological place in the popular culture, even (maybe especially) among kids and adults who had never been on a surfboard in their lives.

But this is no routine rise-and-fall affair. "Love & Mercy," i.e., the Brian Wilson story, captures the ache at the center of the group co-founder's most revealing later songs, when he was falling apart just as he became an artist. Director Bill Pohlad's film proceeds as a two-track narrative arrangement, augmenting the fantastically rich vocal and instrumental arrangements heard on the soundtrack. It's an unusually faithful and accurate film when it comes to the music. Yet Pohlad, working from a first-rate script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, doesn't get hung up on A-to-Z completism or conventional biopic cliches.

Wilson emerges as a dimensional creative soul, and the actors who play Wilson at different stages, Paul Dano and John Cusack, rise to the challenge with the strongest, subtlest work of their lives.

We come to know Dano's Wilson in the years 1965-1968. It's Cusack's 1980s Wilson, a stoop-shouldered, hollow man, we meet first, when he visits a Cadillac dealership. There he meets his future wife, an impressive saleswoman with a bright SoCal grin named Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks. Wilson is not alone. He's shopping with his mysterious keeper, New Age therapist and old-school Svengali, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, in a comical wig that constitutes one of the film's only misjudgments).

How did the whispering wreck before us, artfully sketched by Cusack, emerge from the Wilson we have in Dano's '60s scenes? The mystery plays out, tantalizingly, as the film pops back and forth between time frames. At the height of the Beach Boys mania, when Wilson suffers a panic attack on a plane, he opts out of a grueling touring schedule to write songs. Then came the 11th Beach Boys album, "Pet Sounds" (1966), which Wilson supervised in obsessive detail at the age of 23. He was like Orson Welles making "Citizen Kane," too young to worry about what The People thought.

"Love & Mercy" doesn't work the way most musical biopics work. Most biopics seize on every opportunity to re-create scenes of the tortured protagonist in a triumphant live concert setting. Wilson, by contrast, was a studio wizard, and in the whirling, exuberant sequences of Wilson and company recording "Pet Sounds" and the later, more popular single "Good Vibrations," Pohlad comes alive as a director. He's primarily a producer of unusually discerning taste ("12 Years a Slave," "The Tree of Life," "Brokeback Mountain," "Wild"), with a single narrative feature on his directorial resume, "Old Explorers" from 1990. Based on "Love & Mercy," he has learned a great deal and synthesized many different approaches and styles from the directors he backed along the way.

I've been hot and cold on Dano's performances for years; too often in earlier films, his penchant for slowing a scene's rhythm to suit his own needs has driven me a little nuts, even in a great film such as "There Will Be Blood." But his instincts are unerring as Wilson, and his detail work feels to me far more selective and purposeful. Cusack doesn't try to match Dano in any way; he's essentially playing a different man, a thwarted and distant relative of Dano's Wilson. The approach works, and he and Banks are wonderful together. She convinces as Wilson's savior, in part because she doesn't play her that way. She's wholly effective, as Ledbetter gradually realizes all the ways in which Dr. Landy is killing Wilson's spirit in the name of healing.

In reductive psychological terms, Wilson endured a terrible, abusive father (Bill Camp), who became the boys' manager. Wilson then swapped him out for Landy, a manipulator of a different stripe. "Love & Mercy" puts the two father figures out there because the facts of Wilson's life support it. The man who wrote the melody for the neediest pop classic ever, "God Only Knows," clearly knew pain and emotional desolation and knew how to seduce millions with the sound.

I suppose Pohlad's film might've benefited from scenes between Landy and Wilson in their early days together. The screenplay intentionally leaves out the slow grind of a middle period. We're not getting the entire life story. We're getting something more interesting: a call-and-response between two phases of one musician's legacy.

Co-writer Moverman worked on the nutty, half-inspired Bob Dylan fantasia "I'm Not There." "Love & Mercy" doesn't go nearly that far out on a limb. It ventures just far out enough to dazzle us with its clarity of purpose and emotional intelligence. We've had plenty of good musical biopics ("Walk the Line," "Control") and a handful of better ones ("Sid and Nancy," the more recent "Get On Up"). This one's special, more inward-seeking. By the end, the two Brian Wilsons — the pop machine and the hallucinogen-prone experimenter — have become Brian Wilson the Third, the one touring this summer at the age of 72, in support of his latest album.

Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.

mjphillips@tribpub.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"Love & Mercy" -- 4 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, drug content and language)

Running time: 2:00

Opens: Friday

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