The first thing you see in “Love & Mercy” is an extreme close-up of Brian Wilson’s ear. It’s a startling image, and it holds out a twofold promise: that the film will take viewers inside its protagonist’s head and that it will pay particular attention to the role that sound played in his life.
For the most part, this movie, a smart, compassionate, refreshingly unconventional biopic directed by Bill Pohlad, makes good on both promises, exploring the mental world and the artistic method of a great artist. It’s a loving tribute to the Beach Boys and the man responsible for their distinctive sound, but it goes to deeper and stranger places than most movies of its kind. On screen, the lives of musicians tend to follow a tried-and-true outline: A rise to fame is followed by a personal and professional crisis, often involving drugs, which is followed by a redemptive third act. What is often missing from the formula is any real insight into the reason we might be interested in the first place, which is the music. We might see our idol, more or less persuasively impersonated by a hard-working actor, strumming a guitar or noodling at a piano, but the complicated labor of creativity is notoriously hard to show on screen.
Mr. Pohlad, an accomplished producer who had the cooperation of Mr. Wilson and his wife, Melinda, doesn’t just overcome this challenge; he makes witnessing the creation of a record as exciting as hearing a classic song for the first time. One of the best things about “Love & Mercy,” which was written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, is how long it lingers in the recording studio, observing as Brian, played in his 20s by Paul Dano, is putting together “Pet Sounds,” by consensus one of the great albums of its era.
The attention to detail in these scenes provides a feast for geeks of all kinds, as the camera lovingly ogles microphones, amplifiers and consoles that were state of the art in the mid-1960s. Watching Brian, with his boyish face and eager puppy-dog manner, adjusting the knobs and directing the session players, is like watching a kid in a toy store. He is freer and more confident than ever before, layering and sculpting improbable instruments and bewitching harmonies into songs that are at once exquisitely simple and astonishingly sophisticated.
The making of “Pet Sounds” is the centerpiece of “Love & Mercy.” It also represents a plateau of calm and control in the midst of a life full of chaos and pain. Instead of telling the story in full, the film shifts back and forth — fluidly and seamlessly — from the ’60s to the ’80s, when Brian, now played by John Cusack, first meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), in a Cadillac showroom in Los Angeles. Their courtship is complicated by the presence of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychologist who serves as Brian’s guru, dietitian and legal guardian.
Working together — but also in isolation from each other, like musicians in separate recording booths — Mr. Cusack and Mr. Dano create a remarkable composite performance, a set of before-and-after pictures that is also a perfectly unified, hauntingly complex portrait. Mr. Dano, gentle and inscrutable as a panda bear, conveys the pathos of a young man’s unraveling. The Beach Boys were a family business, including Brian’s brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel). Their rise, chronicled in a lively montage of early hits, was overseen by Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), an abusive patriarch who hung around to undermine and humiliate his sons, Brian in particular, even after being fired as the group’s manager.
The movie is careful not to push too far into Freudian psychodrama. Brian’s mental collapse is not directly attributed to his abusive father or to the pressures of fame. At a certain point, the sounds in his head take on a sinister cast, and his odd behavior and paranoid ramblings frighten his bandmates and his first wife, Marilyn (Erin Darke). LSD doesn’t help. By the time he meets Melinda, though, his breakdown is in the past. He strikes her as a sweet, soft-spoken eccentric, a pampered rich guy who is also kind and vulnerable. He shocks her sometimes by referring almost casually to the trauma and abuse in his past and gradually reveals the terror that governs his present-day life.
If the ’60s half of “Love & Mercy” is, in part, a trippy excursion into a golden piece of the California past, the ’80s section is a spooky Los Angeles noir. Told almost entirely from Melinda’s perspective, it follows her discovery of the hidden, sinister dimensions of Dr. Landy’s apparent benevolence. A jolly, friendly fellow on the surface, Landy is both a one-of-a-kind creep (Mr. Giamatti’s smile will give you nightmares, as will his hair) and a recognizable type of villain. Melinda, whose sunny disposition masks a steely, icy resolve, makes a very satisfying foil, and Ms. Banks’s astute performance, in a series of eye-catching period-appropriate outfits, is what binds the film together. Melinda is the only person who can love and appreciate Brian for who he is, and as such she is the stand-in for the rest of us, who admire what he accomplished.
This film deepens that appreciation and illuminates its sources. Mr. Pohlad’s deft narrative sense and careful visual style are complemented by the work of Atticus Ross, whose sonic collages —“score” doesn’t quite do justice to his achievement — take us deeper inside a musical mind than we might have thought possible. “Love & Mercy” doesn’t claim to solve the mystery of Brian Wilson, but it succeeds beyond all expectation in making you hear where he was coming from.
“Love & Mercy” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Not all the vibrations are good.
A film review on Friday about “Love & Mercy,” which portrays the relationship between the Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson and his therapist, Eugene Landy, described Dr. Landy’s credentials incorrectly. He earned a Ph.D in psychology; he was not a psychiatrist.