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Love & Mercy explores the two sides of Brian Wilson

Biopics are a tough gig. While the incredible life stories of recognisable names are seemingly excellent candidates for big screen treatments, the lack of a three act structure to be found in a person’s life can often prove problematic in trying to craft a compelling film. But in neatly subverting biopic conventions, director Bill Pohlad and writer Oren Moverman have done the impossible with Love & Mercy – created a vibrant, upbeat film that’s both faithful to its subject and a truly engaging watch.

Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is at a crossroads in the 1960s – hot off the initial phenomenal success of The Beach Boys, he’s striving for innovation in his music, at odds with his band mates and struggling to cope with his failing mental health. Two decades later, Wilson's (now played by John Cusack) life has been wholly monopolised by controversial psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) – but that will change when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Bill Pohlad has produced some of the most celebrated movies in recent history – including 12 Years a Slave, Wild and Tree of Life – and he's clearly been taking notes, because his direction is assured in a way that's essentially unheard of for a sophomore effort. Never labouring over the tired hallmarks of biographical films, Pohlad's biggest concern is ultimately getting to the heart of Wilson as a lead character – instead of what could have simply been a superficial portrait of the pop music icon.

It's a bold choice, then, that Pohlad frames Wilson as a supporting character in the latter half of the timeline – we're introduced to him by way of Banks' Melinda Ledbetter. It's a bold decision that, for the most part, pays off handsomely. Banks is a magnetic presence on screen and it keeps the proceedings moving to be introduced to Brian as her character comes to know him. Banks' stellar performance continues her fantastic run thus far in 2015, but the rest of the performances are not to be dismissed – Paul Dano and John Cusack's dual performances provides two equally nuanced portrayals of Wilson. Giamatti does a fine job as psychotherapist Eugene Landy, but devolves into caricature several times over – something largely owed to Landy’s positioning as the cartoonish villain.

There's enough material here for two good films about Wilson's life, but putting the stories side by side does a greater service to his story and also makes Love & Mercy an uncommonly compelling watch – and a film that anyone hoping to make a biopic would do well to take notes from.

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