Love & Mercy is not a traditional biopic. “It’s a portrait, painted by two actors, who are both trying to get a sense of who this guy is,” says director Bill Pohlad, also the founder & CEO of River Road Entertainment (12 Years a Slave, Into the Wild).
Written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner and made with the support of Wilson and his wife, Melinda Ledbetter, Love & Mercy presents two parallel narratives: one of a young Wilson in the mid-1960s as he moves away from The Beach Boys‘ surf sound and becomes tortured by voices in his head; the other of an overly medicated, middle-aged Wilson in the 1980s, who is controlled by psychologist/legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy and falling for Ledbetter (portrayed by Elizabeth Banks), who would become his second wife.
“By having two actors play him, we’re admitting that there’s no way to do all of Brian’s life,” says John Cusack, who spent time with the artist to prepare for his role as the latter-day Wilson. “What I took away from Brian’s work, and having come to know him, is the feeling and sensitivity I needed to capture. That was the key.”
Love & Mercy uses that sensitivity to delve into a past that was difficult, even for Wilson, to face. “[Brian] can play it cool sometimes,” says Pohlad. “But it was really frightening for him to confront all of that and to see it up there.” The result is an impressionistic rendering of a beloved and troubled icon who managed to escape darkness. As Cusack puts it, “I see Brian as a survivor.”
Additional reporting by Phil Gallo.
This story originally appeared in the April 11 issue of Billboard.