In the mid-1960s, Brian Wilson (Dano) is riding high. As the talented Lead Bassist of The Beach Boys, he enjoys both wealth and success. However, a panic attack on an airplane along with the release of Rubber Soul prompts him to stay in California crafting a more experimental, personal album with no filler, Pet Sounds. However, while crafting the follow-up Smile, Wilsons mental health takes a downward turn as drugs and stress drive him past the brink of sanity
Wait, that description isnt entirely truthful.
In the mid-1980s, Brian Wilson (Cusack) is an Empty Shell controlled by his abusive doctor/legal guardian/svengali Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti). Separated from his friends and family, he seems adrift under the watchful eye of Landy until he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman who falls in love with Wilson and works to get Landy out of his life.
Confused? Well to put it more succinctly, Love & Mercy jumps back and forth between these two plots in order to tell the story of Brian Wilson's life and music and how they're affected today.
Love & Mercy provides examples of:
- The '60s: For the first half.
- The '80s: For the second half.
- Abusive Parents: Murry Wilson, just like in real life. He beat the Wilson brothers, is disappointed when he hears "God Only Knows" for the first time, seems more interested in a new band he manages, and dispassionately reveals that he sold the back catalog for $750,000, pushing Brian into his Heroic BSoD.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Graham Rogers, who stands 6-feet-tall, plays the 5-foot-4 Al Jardine. And in what appears to be a running theme in Beach Boys/Brian Wilson biopics, Carl Wilson, who was notably chubby as a younger man, is played by someone of average build (in this case, Brett Davern).
- Adult Fear: Brian's gradual Sanity Slippage during the 60s. Everyone around him realizes that it's happening, and even Brian himself realizes that he's losing his mind, helpless to stop it. This hits close to home for anyone who ever had to deal with a loved one slowly go insane.Carl Wilson: "I'm worried about you, brother."BrianPast: "I think I might be losing it..."Dennis Wilson: "I don't blame you. There's a lot to lose out there."
- Anachronic Order: As stated above, the film cuts back and forth between the two stories. However, its pretty easy to follow.
- Artistic License History: While the film is mostly able to stay accurate to real-life events, it did take some liberties:
- The film makes it seem that Brian Wilson went to work on Pet Sounds right after he had his breakdown on the plane. In reality, he also made three more albums between the breakdown and the Pet Sounds sessions (Beach Boys' Party! was actually produced during the early Pet Sounds sessions as a stop-gap release when Capitol Records demanded a new album for the Holiday season).
- The film portrays Brian Wilson as having written "Good Vibrations" after the Pet Sounds sessions. He actually wrote "Good Vibrations" either before or during the Pet Sounds sessions with lyrics by Tony Asher, and was even intended for the album. It was scrapped because Brian wasn't happy with it at the time and later approached Mike to write new lyrics for the song, where it was released as a hit single.
- In the film, it's stated that the rest of the Beach Boys went on to record Smiley Smile without Brian's involvement. He was actually heavily involved in the album's production, and the album was actually his idea. He even set up a home studio to record the album.
- The film has Murry Wilson sell the publishing rights to the Beach Boys' catalog right after the collapse of the SMiLE sessions. He actually sold the rights after the release of 20/20, the band's final album on Capitol Records.
- A minor example but in the film, Murry sold the rights for $50,000 more than what he actually sold them for.
- In a scene where Brian is recording "Caroline, No", Murry comes in to brag about his new band The Sunrays' single "I Live for the Sun" that had just been cut and how it's guaranteed to be a #1 hit. By the time Brian even got around to recording Pet Sounds, "I Live for the Sun" had been out for a while, and for anyone curious, it only topped out at #51.
- The background studio chatter in "Here Today" is portrayed as deliberate in the film. In reality, it was an oversight due to a rushed mixing job, and the chatter was omitted from the stereo release.
- Melinda was portrayed in the film as being directly responsible for beginning the lawsuit against Brian's therapist Eugene Landy. While she definitely played a part in freeing Brian from Landy by reporting him to the state attorney general, it was actually a woman named Kay Gilmer, Landy's publicist, who gathered the evidence that began the lawsuit.
- Carl Wilson's role in getting Brian away from Landy is severely underplayed. In the movie Carl is portrayed as something of a bystander, unaware of Landy's treatment of Brian, and doesn't appear onscreen in the 80s timeline. In real life he despised Landy and resented his control over his brother.
- Badass Crew: The Wrecking Crew, the real life session musicians Brian hired in order to help make Pet Sounds and Smile.
- Beard of Evil: Mike Love.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Deconstructed with Brian. While he may be a musical genius, his unconventional, perfectionist attitudes combined with drug abuse and a worsening mental state lead to his decades-long Heroic BSoD.
- Commander Contrarian: Mike Love. When the rest of the band returns from Japan and hears Pet Sounds for the first time, they all somewhat approve of it. Mike is less impressed and wants the music to be Strictly Formula.
- Creator Breakdown: In-Universe, after his panic attack, BrianPast slowly starts to succumb to his schizophrenia over the production of Pet Sounds and Smile.
- Determinator: Melinda tries her hardest to find some way to get Landy out of BrianFuture's life and succeeds.
- Distinction Without a Difference:BrianFuture: "People always say I spent two years in bed. They were wrong. I spent three years in bed."
- The Dragon: An interesting example. Landy's assistants seem more concerned regarding Brian than Landy does.
- Doctor Jerk: Landy.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: BrianFuture ends up free from Landy's control, marries Melinda and finally finishes Smile.
- Empty Shell: BrianFuture is an over-medicated mess of a man who has everything out of his control.
- "Eureka!" Moment: After BrianPast plays the melody for "Good Vibrations" for hours on end, he has a conversation with Mike and mentions something about animals being able to pick up vibes from people.
- Faux Documentary: The studio scenes when Pet Sounds is being recorded are meant to invoke this.
- Florence Nightingale Effect: Melinda falls in love with BrianFuture partly because he's a desperate man yearning for freedom.
- Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who is familiar with the Beach Boys' history will already know that Melinda helped BrianFuture break free from Landy's control in 1992 and married him three years later.
- Hearing Voices: Brian.
- Heroic BSoD: The 1980s plotline shows him slowly getting out of it. The 1960s plotline shows How We Got Here.
- I Just Write the Thing: BrianPast states how his music is a manifestation of what he hears in his head.
- In Name Only: Mike is peeved that Pet Sounds really only has The Beach Boys' voices on them instead of playing their instruments.
- Incessant Music Madness: Mike Love is not a fan of working on "Good Vibrations" for months on end.Brian: Okay, one more time please, "KUH-kuh-kuh, KUH-kuh-kuh, KUH-kuh-kuh"—
Mike [exploding]: "kuhkuhkuhkuhkuh!" They're doing it! Brian, they've been doing it for the past three hours!
Brian: Okay, Mike, you can leave if you don't want to be here, thank you, I'm working with the cello players.
- Kindly Housekeeper: BrianFuture's housekeeper Gloria who plays a key part in helping Melinda free him from Dr. Landy.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: While Melinda has a more down-to-earth personality than most examples of this trope, she still gets BrianFuture free from Landy's control.
- Manipulative Bastard: Dr. Landy.
- Modesty Bedsheet: BrianFuture and Melinda have a lengthy scene together while covered in bedsheets.
- Mushroom Samba: While we don't see much of it, Brian's description of his first time trying LSD is very trippy.
- The Perfectionist: Brian's attitudes lead to him alienating the rest of The Beach Boys.
- Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Landy abuses his poor patient horribly.
- Rule of Pool:
- BrianPast hops in a pool fully clothed during a celebration at a party. During a meeting with the band, he also dives in fully clothed.
- BrianFuture and Melinda jump off a boat and swim to shore fully clothed.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: When The Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks host a poolside meeting to discuss BrianPast's behavior, the latter mentions how he's been writing music since he was 14, then promptly leaves
- Shown Their Work: The movie makes an effort to show photos, videos and studio methods as accurately as possible.
- Strictly Formula: Mike Love's approach to songwriting imposed on Brian.
- The Svengali: Landy. He's shown to clearly mooch off BrianFuture's wealth and tries to get him to obey his every command.
- Supporting Protagonist: While Brian is consistently the focus, the 1980s sections are mostly told from Melinda Ledbetter's perspective.
- Third Wheel: Dr. Landy and his son either chaperone or outright spy on BrianFuture's time with Melinda.
- Toplessness from the Back: We briefly see Melinda from the back before she covers up with a Modesty Bedsheet.
- Trippy Finale Syndrome: When Melinda works to get Landy removed, a psychedelic montage occurs involving 80s Brian (known as "BrianFuture"), 60s Brian (known as "BrianPast) and Brian as a young child.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Brian, and, to a lesser degree, his brothers.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Mike is put off by BrianPast and Van Dyke writing Smile with this trope in mind.