Wouldn’t it be nice if genius came with operating instructions, protective care, and safety would be guaranteed. All too often, though, genius roars into the world with too many forces of opposition working to derail it. In the best of circumstances, it finds its way out one way or another. Such was the case with the very talented Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys when his father noticed how well he could play instruments as a small child. This abusive, controlling and task-master of a father would guide Wilson, for better or worse, towards success. Without that, there are many different ways he might have drifted but with his father’s rigid direction, Wilson, his two other brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine became one of the major forces of pop music in the mid 1960s and 1970s.
Brian Wilson famously struggled to maintain sanity with voices echoing through his head as a young man. He suffered numerous nervous breakdowns, battled with drugs and eventually ended up in the hands of another controlling, abusive force, Dr. Gene Landy. Though Wilson was eventually wrestled from the grips of Landy, that relationship is where the new movie about Wilson begins.
In Love & Mercy, Brian Wilson is played with tender loving care by two actors, John Cusack and Paul Dano, both of whom have done their research on Wilson, in every possible way, delivering an authentic, moving portrayal of the idol who once was and the man he would later became. That gives the film, directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner, the chance to show us Wilson’s gifted musical evolution as a young man and member of the Beach Boys, then fast forwarding through his life to someone trapped behind his crippling mental illness and the immovable force that was Gene Landy.
Pohlad’s flourishes elevate the film from conventional biopic to an impressionist’s version of Wilson’s life. The three years Wilson spent in bed in his bathrobe are turned into a montage of memory, sound, fears, flashes of who Wilson was at certain points of his life, as often is the case when we are left with nothing but solitude and the oppressive companionship of our never-ending demons.
The film plays with sound in clever ways. Since Wilson’s world was built not just on sound but on sound loss, being specific in that department was key to portraying this subjective telling of his life. In one great and disturbing sequence, the young Wilson (Dano) is unable to listen to anyone speaking over the clang clang clanging of glasses, forks and knives on plates until it consumes him. His obsession with sound would lead him towards brilliant musical compositions we all know and love, but also towards voices in his head and other things he couldn’t unhear.
Atticus Ross composed the score, sans Trent Reznor, and it’s pure ambience – discordant at times, moody and horrifying at other times. This works beautifully in contrast to those catchy Beach Boys sounds we all associate with Brian Wilson. It’s another great work by Ross.
Watching the young Wilson create his original music, as played by Dano in yet another brilliant incarnation, is so much the thrill of Love & Mercy. Playing piano strings with bobby pins, or hearing a dog bark. It will heighten one’s appreciation of what the Beach Boys were doing once you drill down past the fun-in-the-sun surface layer. Have a listen to Brian Wilson magnificent track from Pet Sounds, Let’s Go Away for a While, and you can clearly see what kind of genius they were dealing with. Wilson, though, was pushed towards generating hits, and generate them he did.
The bullet to the heart in this film is John Cusack’s heartbreaking, unforgettable turn as the older Wilson. Disarmingly sweet and gentle, he captures Wilson to an astonishing degree. He is Wilson once the music went away, once the rights to that music were sold by his father, in the grips of Landy, convinced that he had no mind of his own. You can see glimpses in Cusack’s performance that Wilson wants out but has no ability to do it on his own. He is simply grateful to be out of bed. What he wouldn’t do for Landy who helped him do at least that much.
It isn’t until he meets the beautiful ex-model/car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that Wilson finds someone who will help him escape his own life. In real life there were other people involved in helping Wilson detach from Landy but this film is a deliberate love story because it is love that eventually saves Wilson’s life.
As Melinda Ledbetter, Banks has never been better. She is a formidable match for Cusack, delivering a career-best performance. So much of the work Banks is doing is internal. What she’s thinking, how she responds to Cusack says so much more than the lines she’s given to deliver, which are minimal, to make way for those powerful wordless reactions.
Finally, Paul Giamatti is appropriately menacing as Landy. There’s nothing funny at all about his monstrous performance, a nice variation in his growing canon of character work. Though the film belongs to Cusack/Dano and Banks, Giamatti is necessary to show where Wilson came from and where he is now.
Driving home from the screening I blasted The Beach Boys at full volume. I defy anyone to listen to Don’t Worry Baby, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t it Be Nice and Don’t Worry Baby and not smile. For a man so consumed with sadness the music of The Beach Boys was a happiness factory — helping the rest of us indulge in the light and color of a simple summer afternoon. Those songs were strands of my hair that tasted like salt water falling into my mouth. They were sunburned shoulders and suntan lotion. They were bikini tans, beach towels laid out on the sand. They were towheaded surfers strolling by with their wet suits hung past their waists. They were summer. They were freedom. They were pure joy and still are.
Nonetheless, there was much more to Wilson, more that he wanted to do musically that was sacrificed in the name of the top 40 hit. His second act would give him that chance. He couldn’t have gotten there without love — those who looked out for him, found him when he was lost, and gave him what he needed all along. Mercy because Wilson doesn’t feel full of blame, even for those who committed unforgivable crimes against him. The film is a tribute to Wilson and Ledbetter’s love story, an explanation of Wilson’s triumph over mental illness, and a chance for the entire Academy theater to rise to their feet in enthusiastic appreciation of this great, great artist. Wilson, it was said, had tears in his eyes during this ovation. That he was surprised by it is what defines this humble man, ripped wide open by genius and sewn back together with love and mercy.