“Columnated ruins domino”
— The Beach Boys, “Surf’s Up” (from The SMiLE Sessions)
Brian Wilson is a man obsessed with sound. Some might prefer the word “music” to end that last sentence, and they of course wouldn’t be wrong. As the widely-recognized artistic genius at the heart of the Beach Boys, Wilson’s preoccupation with perfect pop is extensively documented. But while his skill in complex harmonies and sophisticated arrangements is beyond reproach, his ear is attuned to things more fundamental than the playbook of ’60s pop.
In a scene in the biopic Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, a young Wilson (Paul Dano) fixates on the sound of silverware scraping at dinner plates during a celebratory meal following the successful release of “Good Vibrations”. Though many would simply tune out the clacks and clings of metal hitting china, Wilson can’t help but hear them form a steely cacophony. As these sounds rise to a crescendo, Wilson stands up, yells, and jets out of the room.
Not long before this dinner, Wilson painstakingly attempts to make “the greatest album ever made” in the form of 1966’s Pet Sounds — which, since its release, has come to bear that moniker in various music publication’s Greatest Albums lists. Wilson’s planned (and even more belabored) follow-up to Pet Sounds, SMiLE, was so complicated in his mind that it never received a finalized form. (The long-delayed SMiLE Sessions were released in 2011.)
In the process of making those two now-revered LPs in Love & Mercy, Wilson is shown tinkering with the minutiae of his already tricky compositions. He plucks piano strings with bobby pins. He instructs cello players for several hours on how to play the perfect staccato note. He taps on the walls of a sound studio to figure out how good their “vibes” are. Melody, rhythm, and chord changes are all crucial to Wilson, but his process, at its most elemental, focuses on sounds rather than notes.
Of course, this sound-centric approach takes on a critical significance when one takes into account Wilson’s history with mental illness. Love & Mercy focuses on two key time periods in Wilson’s life, rather than taking the tired-and-somewhat-true “life-spanning” biopic genre. The first of these is the mid-’60s Beach Boys years, when Pet Sounds was recorded and SMiLE was attempted. The second, where the role of Wilson is taken on by John Cusack, takes place when the then-reclusive songwriter meets his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, the film’s moral core), while under the draconian psychiatric care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
Cusack’s Wilson, who according to Landy is a paranoid schizophrenic (a diagnosis later corrected after Landy was given a restraining order), is as attuned to sound as his younger self is, but there’s far less music in his life. Cusack and Dano’s performances, both riveting to watch in their own right and meticulously interdependent, are rooted in the inability to bring to life the sounds trapped in Wilson’s head. As the younger Wilson, Dano walks around music studios wide-eyed, hearing music that seems bent on never leaving his mental space.
Following a mentally taxing decade in the ’70s, Wilson, as envisioned by Cusack, hears only the dullest of sounds. Where once Wilson heard everything from unexplainable music to cascades of voices, Cusack depicts ’80s Wilson as hearing everything in a dull din. Fortunately, Cusack’s Wilson at least has Ledbetter, performed radiantly by Banks, to help bring him back to life and free from the clutches of Landy. Dano’s Wilson, by contrast, has to square up with bandmates uncertain about his vision, and record executives looking for the Next Big Hit.
This fight between interiority and exteriority is what has made Wilson’s story one of the most compelling in the pop music realm. If Pet Sounds and The SMiLE Sessions constitute what happens when Wilson can extract the music in his head, then it’s no wonder why it’s so enticing to speculate on the subject of Wilson’s mental symphonies.
Love & Mercy, though a fine watch through and through, really hammers home the predictable dualities of Wilson’s life. In the ’60s, he’s controlled by record labels, his bandmates, and his father; in the ’80s, he’s controlled by Landy. He battles with inner music in one decade and mental illness in the other. Pohlad, along with screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, make damn sure that these well-known aspects of Wilson’s life are put front and center. Anyone already familiar with this story will not leave with much additional insight.
The cinemaphotography and mise-en-scene further drill those points in. Love & Mercy opens with a shot of Wilson (Dano) at the piano in a low-lit room. A faint gold light emits from the keys, highlighting the light at the end of the tunnel Wilson seeks in his compositions. In another scene, one featuring all of the Beach Boys, Wilson (Dano) treads water in the deep end of a pool, calling for his bandmates sitting stoically in the shallow end to join him. Here Pohlad makes the important but obvious point: Wilson is willing to venture choppier waters, while the rest of the group would have been content to remain in the placid environs of easy-breezy ’60s surf pop.
Here and in many other scenes, simplicity is a key fault of Love & Mercy. Pohlad is fortunate to have the cast of actors that he does here, as in lesser hands such cinemaphotographic and screenwriting choices would have resulted in a stale biopic that would have at best only satisfied Wilson diehards. Most importantly, though, Love & Mercy benefits from one lone truth: unadorned by any cinematic accoutrements, the story of Brian Wilson is a mesmerizing one. It’s even easy to get sucked in by the Wikipedia version of Wilson’s life, especially if that is followed by a listening of Pet Sounds and SMiLE.
As such, Pohlad didn’t have to do a ton of heavy lifting on the storytelling end; the raw materials hit a powerful chord on their own. Love & Mercy would have benefited from a more artful presentation, but it’s also a great story told well. That fact, combined with the top-notch performances of Dano, Cusack, and Banks, is enough to make Love & Mercy a must-watch for fans of Wilson and the Beach Boys, to say nothing of music lovers as a whole.
Anyone looking to get inside the head of Wilson will likely leave dissatisfied; but, then again, such mystery is in itself a reward. The world may never fully experience whatever Wilson’s vision was for his “teenage symphony to God” (SMiLE) as he envisioned it in 1960, but his music and his life story have left such lasting impacts that any counterfactual is irrelevant. Some sounds will forever remain in Wilson’s head, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
Included in the Blu-ray edition of Love & Mercy are deleted scenes and some lengthy featurettes that are helpful in giving some insight to the making of the film. The talking heads from Pohlad and the primary cast do often lapse into unalloyed Wilson worship, but getting to hear Dano and Cusack talk about making their performances work together makes muscling through the adulation worth it.