THE BEACH BOYS occupy a unique space in the rock 'n' roll continuum: Although the band has gone on to become one of the most successful enterprises in popular music (founding member Mike Love continues to tour under the “Beach Boys” banner, with a rotating cast of nondescript septuagenarians that, when he’s feeling generous, sometimes include his old bandmates), their only truly significant work is confined to two records: 1966's Pet Sounds and its famously aborted (though eventually released) follow-up, Smile, which began production in late '66 and was shelved in '67.
That's the period dramatized in the better parts of Love & Mercy: Paul Dano, an actor well regarded for his convincing portrayals of characters who are at once endearing and batshit, pulls off the idiosyncrasies of the young Wilson perfectly. The interactions between Wilson and his bandmates—younger brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald), cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), and schoolmate Al Jardine (Graham Rogers)—are vivacious, organic, and actually resemble an authentic band dynamic, something most music biopics fail at, while the recording session scenes are immersive and comprehensive enough to satisfy diehard fans without boring the uninitiated.
By comparison, a parallel arc with John Cusack portraying Brian Wilson in his 40s—an overmedicated, incapacitated man-child at the mercy of despotic pseudo-psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti)—can't help but feel dull. Old Wilson finds salvation at the hands and heart of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman who frees him from Landy's dominion and reconnects him with his family. Mechanical acting from Banks and Cusack (not to mention a complete lack of chemistry between the two) doesn't quite do the fairy tale justice, though Giamatti offers a wicked performance.
Love & Mercy's constant, ambitious shuffling between these two eras sometimes has a cool effect, but just as often, it can be grating (compounded by the fact that Old Wilson really is less interesting). Nonetheless, when it's effective—which is pretty much whenever Dano is on the screen—it's probably the best Brian Wilson biopic we'll get.