There are many scenes in Bill Pohland’s new film Love and Mercy of Brian Wilson simply listening. That wouldn’t be an especially unusual choice for a film about a great composer, but the twist here is that Brian isn’t always listening to music. “I hear voices in my head,” he admits at one point. “I’ve heard them since 1963.” Many of those voices echo the horrible abuse he suffered at the hand of his father, and like many survivors of abuse, he sought out similar patterns as an adult. Add extreme emotional sensitivity and mountains of psychedelic drugs to that mix and it’s no wonder the poor guy spent three years locked in his bedroom trying to drown the voices out. But we don’t see that chapter of Brian Wilson’s life here. What we get in this deeply affecting and highly original biopic is the man before that disintegration, and what’s left of him after.
Wilson, the songwriter and major creative force behind The Beach Boys, is today recognized as one of America’s greatest creative personalities. He formed the group with his two brothers, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and their school chum Al Jardine in 1962, under the stern management of the Wilson’s father, Murray. It was Brian that shone out right from the start, not being particularly interested in surfing or the beach (Brian was afraid of the water, in fact), but in music, particularly the close harmonies of the Four Freshman and the composers of popular American song like Gershwin. Brother Carl had a penchant for Chuck Berry, and the combination of Berry’s rhythms and the Four Freshman harmonies are the essential ingredients of The Beach Boys’ sound. Dennis, a ladies man, car enthusiast and surfer, supplied the subject material, and a string of hits followed. (For novices, Brian’s the one singing the high part on “I Get Around” and “California Girls”.)
Love and Mercy picks up the story of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys in the mid-1960s, with the Beach Boys riding the crest of their fame and Brian feeling increasingly anxious about travel, uncomfortable in front of crowds and threatened by the great music being made by The Beatles and Phil Spector. Wilson is played in the 1960s sequences by Paul Dano, and his performance is the reason they make Oscars. Dano has always been a good actor, and turned in great performances in There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine, but he outdoes himself here. His Brian is exquisitely sensitive and fragile emotionally, with an innocence of spirit. He can’t even bring himself to completely reject the father that beat him so badly as a child that he was rendered deaf in one ear, earnestly playing his new song (“God Only Knows”) while Murray drinks whiskey in his bathrobe and rejects it.
The film also picks up on Brian in the mid-1980s, a shattered shell of his former self, heavily medicated by his live-in therapist/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti at his greasy best). This older Wilson is played by John Cusack, and while he’s the same gentle character, his mind is a shifting mess, wandering from admissions of serious child abuse and clarity about his own shortcomings as a man to how much he loves Matzo Ball soup. Cusack has, in some ways, a more difficult task as an actor, since he’s so recognizable and Brian is such a disintegrated personality at this point in his life. But as the film goes on, Cusack’s work becomes more impressive, relying on small facial ticks and hesitations and a certain lopsided gait to convey this deeply troubled person without going over into caricature.
The 1980s sequences are all told from the perspective of Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson’s wife for the past 20 years and the woman who broke him away from the abusive Dr. Landy. She’s played here by Elizabeth Banks, in her latest excellent performance. (I’ve yet to see her give a bad one.) Ledbetter, a Cadillac saleswoman, doesn’t recognize Brian right away and there’s a long scene with the two of them in the front seat of a floor model car when they first meet that would be a great scene in any film. In fact, if these were entirely fictional characters, little moments such as Brian quietly asking for a pen and writing the words, “Lonely Scared Frightened” on the back of a business card, almost as an afterthought, would make this movie a grown-up version of Garden State.
Eugene Landy comes across here as a monstrous character, controlling his wealthy patient through a combination of medication and abuse, screaming at him for eating a hamburger and insisting on Melinda filing reports after each date. One truly terrifying scene involves Melinda visiting Brian, only to glimpse him through a half-opened door in his underwear, head drooping, drooling, but propped up at the piano with Landy behind him beating him and screaming, “Write a song! WRITE a song!!!” What this film makes abundantly clear is that Landy didn’t need to speak: Brian heard, and hears, abusive, derogatory self-defeating voices constantly. Landy’s “tough guy” therapy no doubt made him worse, probably precipitating a series of small strokes Brian suffered in those years.
But in addition to the voices, Brian also hears beautiful music, and his greatest joy is in making it live and breathe in the wider world. Here, the 1960s sequences are particularly magical, as the film painstakingly re-creates the process of making Wilson’s first true masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Recorded mainly while the other Beach Boys were on tour in Japan (Brian had dropped out of the group for performing purposes, much preferring to stay home and write songs for them), Wilson is endlessly creative with his team of professional studio musicians sometimes twice his age. “If you repeat it every four bars, it’s not a mistake!” he exclaims when a musician accidentally adds some notes to his arrangement. We know these songs today, such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, as modern classics, but Mike Love (played here by Jake Abel) disagrees, and says so, criticizing the whole album as self-indulgent and downbeat. “Even the happy songs are sad!” he says out of frustration. Pet Sounds yielded no hit singles, vindicating Love in his eyes and opening the door to the compromise between artistic creativity and commerciality that was “Good Vibrations”, probably The Beach Boys’ apex as a group. Brian was reaching towards Beethoven, stretching the possibilities of a doo-wop group into classical chorale. The musical strain proved to be too much.
The 1960s version of Brian starts out knowing what he wants, that is, to make great music. But as time goes by, his goals slip further and further out of reach. He stumbles through the making of the follow-up to Pet Sounds, the enormously ambitious and complex SMiLE, takes LSD (and “sees God”) and drifts away from his band, his wife and finally himself. The bed-ridden Brian of the mid-1970s is only glimpsed but by the time Dano gets there in his performance, we understand why Brian found it necessary to shut the door on the world. The 1980s version of Brian is truly lost, flailing about for a dominant personality and flat-out brain damaged. What’s consistent between the two portrayals of the character is love. Brian, from this portrayal, is a person with enormous tenderness and love, and deep inside he is quite touchingly innocent and sweet. Melinda, we’re led to believe, was the person who was most consistently able to draw that love out of him, and protect him from the more rapacious characters in the world.
This is, admittedly, an “authorized” biography but it’s refreshing in the way that it doesn’t go for the dirt, but for the character. We spend a great deal of time with Brian Wilson here, watching him listen, fight, cry, laugh and attempt to live his life amidst monumental mental illness and abuse. That he was able to make all the music he did make becomes even more remarkable in this context. The final scene, of Brian proposing marriage to Melinda, is fairly shattering, as is the appearance of the real Brian Wilson over the credits, singing the title song, which was written just as he was meeting his future wife. Seeing the real Brian today forgives any number of performance issues from either Dano or Cusack: the real man contains both characters and many more besides. And while it can be argued that the “troubled genius saved by the love of the right woman” story has been told many times before, it does seem in this case to be true.
The fact that this would still be an interesting film if it were about fictional characters and without the Beach Boys music speaks volumes for it as a top-shelf biopic. But the addition of the real-life elements and the endless, beautiful Beach Boys music, heard all through the film in many different context, elevates Love and Mercy to the best new film I’ve seen in 2015.