There are only four words more powerful and important in the history of popular music than “Brian Wilson”. (They are “John,” “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo,” in case you are wondering). As the mastermind behind the Beach Boys and their “surf rock symphonies to God”, he’s perhaps the greatest living reminder of how important the music of ‘60s is to the sounds we hear today. While others have since taken his carefully crafted musings and manipulated them into all manner of genres, Wilson’s work stands as one of the few examples of outright genius that exists in rock ‘n’ roll.
Besides, his life has the makings of an epic poem, something an aging Greek author would manufacture in the making of a modern-day myth. In Wilson’s case, though, it’s all true. He’s a dichotomy, one of the most popular and influential songwriters of all time, as well as one of the most well-known acid (and other drug and psychological issue) casualties ever. By the mid ‘70s, he was a bloated, blank recluse. Now, at 72, he’s back in fighting form, reaping the accolades his decades in the emotional desert denied him.
Now, thanks to the amazing film Love & Mercy, Wilson’s inner world matches his outer one. Told in two distinct parts but brought together by the mutual admiration of this artist’s incredible career, we are treated to both a biopic and a character study, a chance to watch Wilson build his legend only to crash under the weight of his untamed personal demons. The struggles seem obvious at first: the young man (an undeniably brilliant Paul Dano) rebelling against fame, finding solace in the sounds in his head. Then the menacing figure of Murray (Bill Camp), Wilson’s abusive father, begins filtering in.
By the time the rest of the Beach Boys are complaining about the “weird” new (pet) sounds Wilson is working on, the music in his mind is turning into turmoil, voices violating the creative spark. Fast forward, and we see the damage such a psychological split can create. Wilson (John Cusack) is now broken and fragile, under the 24/7 watch of the manipulative con man (and supposed clinical psychologist/psychotherapist) Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, a fraction below over the top). A prison of both his brain and his treatment, he needs an escape.
Enter Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), current car saleswoman, future wife, and savior from the savages of Landy’s overpowering ambitions. It is she who gets Wilson back to his past, to reconnect with his creativity and see a world filled with hope, not horrors. It’s not an easy journey: the ghosts of what’s gone before haunt our hero in ways that are deeply troubling, but by the time Ledbetter becomes Wilson’s wife, we realize that this once fractured man is on his way toward being fixed.
By using this back and forth, by portraying Wilson as two totally different types (and using two different actors to accentuate this), director Brian Pohlad pulls Love & Mercy out of the stale standards of the genre type and turns it into a meditation on the price of virtuosity. Working in the LA studio with the Wrecking Crew, the best session musicians of the era, you can see the freedom Wilson will lose, the joy that will abandon him, and the troubles brewing ahead. So original and dynamic, drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) dismisses comparisons to Wilson’s main mentor, Phil Spector. “He’s got nothin’ on you,” is his sobering response.
As the history goes, SMiLE becomes Wilson’s albatross, a project that he hoped would top the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which, itself was a supposed response to Pet Sounds). In Love & Mercy, it is indeed the turning point. Yes, the decision to stop touring (and the nervous breakdown that caused it) were catalysts, but the inability to realize his aesthetic aims really does cause Wilson to fall apart. His mind gives in to the cacophony and chaos within as he slowly loses grip with reality. It is in these scenes where Dano really shines, showing us the fine line between masterpieces and madness with startling truth.
Indeed, the entirety of Love & Mercy is like eavesdropping. You feel uncomfortable watching the ‘80s Wilson struggle under the yoke of Landy’s ludicrous approach, marvel at the man’s resolve to try and recapture his talents, and wince as we realize he may never find his way back. Of course, we know that he does; he’s perhaps, more popular and respected now than he ever was. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of these trying scenes. For those who didn’t grow up with the Beach Boys and their music, Wilson’s story will seem brand new. While it has many of the touchstones of other falls from grace, Pohlad’s approach reminds us that redemption is just a well-crafted melody away.
Again, Dano is a revelation. An entire movie with him playing Wilson circa “Good Vibrations” would be wonderful. But Cusack is important here, too. He’s the personification of the phrase “shadow of his former self”, the ghostly apparition that passes for the once mighty man. He’s the caution in the cautionary tale, the tragic figure with the fatal flaw whose rehabilitation’s a mere tender hand away. While Landy as portrayed by Giamatti is your requisite villain, broad and brazen, he’s also a byproduct of the time. He had his own ambitions, and with Wilson, there was a possibility of realizing them.
It all creates one of the most compelling films of 2015, a remarkable achievement in a format not known for (near) masterpieces. Sure, there is much more to Wilson’s story than these two isolated periods, but in keeping the focus narrow, Pohlad creates something timeless. Love & Mercy is a very appropriate title indeed. It represents everything about Wilson’s music, and also everything about the man himself.