There are some subjects that exert such an effect on the popular imagination, we never tire of hearing about them. One subject is that of the legendary musical group the Beach Boys, at first thought to be a flash-in-the-pan, now part of American heritage. The three Wilson brothers, together with their cousin, Mike Love, and close friend, Al Jardine, were a paradox: They were “America’s Band,” immortalizing a moment in time (the early 1960s) in which America was at its apogee, the #1 country in the world in everything that mattered, the dream of half of civilization, culminating in the ultimate immigrant dream of all: to drive a hot car, date the right girl, and surf the waves of Southern California.
Yet they became in time the opposite of what they seemed. For they were also a band that longed to become the “American Beatles” and largely succeeded—emulating the Fab Four in many ways: growing their hair long, experimenting with "medicinal" substances, trying to save the environment, and learning meditation from the Maharishi. Like the Beatles, they sang about love, peace, and harmony, and yet had a strange connection to Charles Manson, the most violent and hateful man of the era. All these contradictions were explored in the first two Beach Boys bio-pics: Summer Dreams and The Beach Boys: An American Family.
The new film Love and Mercy drops the Manson and surfer-girl sub-plots, focusing instead on the brain that drove the Beach Boys sound for decades: Brian Wilson, oldest of the three Wilson brothers and the “Mozart” of the group, its producer, arranger, songwriter, and (sometimes) lead singer. It was through his ears that new sounds entered popular culture.
In Love and Mercy, director Bill Pohlad leads us not just into Wilson’s life but his unique brain. At times Pohlad lets the screen go dark while dozens of competing sounds, Beach Boys songs looped together, rise to a crescendo. The effect is enthralling, suggesting that it’s in the nature of genius to have so many things to say, so much to get down, that one lifetime is not enough time to do it. At other times, the cacophony of sounds suggests something of mental illness. In King Lear’s words, “That way madness lies.”
Yet Brian Wilson, who against all odds outlived his brothers, is neither madman nor fool. Love and Mercy repeatedly makes the point that he is that special kind of genius who is a super-sensitive instrument: not immune to the opinions of others but all too vulnerable to them.
Diector Pohlad took the daring risk of casting two different actors as the same person: Paul Dano as Wilson in his 20’s at the height of his creative powers, and John Cusack as the middle-aged Wilson, struggling to balance his loyalties between therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and the love of his life, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).
For most people, there wouldn’t be an issue. But Dr. Landy — after having saved Wilson’s life, helping him to lose a hundred pounds and getting him off drugs – took over as a Svengali, cutting off all ties to competing voices such as his family. (And it should never be forgot, as the film occasionally reminds us, the other Beach Boys were not just band-mates but his brothers and closest friends.) Paul Giamatti’s Dr. Landy is perhaps this actor's most riveting part to date. He berates Brian Wilson like a five-year-old who’s pooped in the living room when the rock star dares do anything he’s not "allowed" to do, such as eat a hamburger. To see an adult man… not to mention a super-talented man admired by millions… treated in this way is more shocking than a hundred car chases or robots blowing up. One only regrets not seeing even more of Landy: how he met Wilson, earned his trust, and initially helped him.
The film’s greatest performance, in some ways, is Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, the attractive blonde car salesperson who becomes his second wife. The trick she pulls off so beautifully is to convince us that she falls in love with Wilson not because of his celebrity but despite it. A former model, she’s been wooed by operators as smooth as they come—or so the script implies—and such a past has only brought her heartbreak and ruin. When she meets Brian Wilson she encounters a man utterly without guile, unable to lie, utterly without pretense: a man-child desperately in need of love who can be, and must be, forgiven any mistake.
Portraying the younger and older Wilson, respectively, Paul Dano and John Cusack manage to hit the same difficult note: portraying the main character as a delicate rubber band that’s being pulled so far it could snap at any moment. But there’s a difference, and the casting of two actors helps achieve it. Dano, playing Wilson in the 1960s, is still full of enthusiasm and hope. The world is his oyster, which with musical sword he will open. As soon as we see Cusack, world-weary and trying to ward off a fear that’s always just beneath the surface, we know something’s happened to the oyster.
It was a controversial choice, as well, to switch back and forth between the two time frames rather than playing the story in linear fashion. People familiar with Wilson’s bio won’t be thrown: they’ll know that in between he went through a period of decline, drug taking, and staying in bed all day until rescued by Dr. Landy. The script will be more challenging to people coming to the story of Wilson’s life for the first time. In the end, the two time frames magically converge in a musical montage that seems almost out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Great Realization, that both the younger and older Wilson seem to have together, is this the importance in believing in the integrity of one’s own perceptions. Enlightenment, if it’s going to come, has to start from within.
Love and Mercy isn’t all things to all people. There’s less about the other Beach Boys than can be found in Summer Dreams or An American Family. Some family members appear, often as roadblocks. Brian’s father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), appears as the bully that, from all accounts, he was… berating his son out of jealousy because the younger Wilson was far more talented than the father would ever be. Of the band members, brothers Carl and Dennis (Brett Davern and Kenny Wormald) are likable enough, but opposition is put up by cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel). It’s a thankless role. Mike is the one who opposed musical innovation. Yet his opposition to Brian’s drug-taking and increasingly strange eccentricities (such as canceling a recording session because the room didn’t have the right “vibrations”) is more understandable. At least the script gives Mike credit for helping Brian finish his magnum opus, “Good Vibrations.” Whether this is true or false, I don’t know.
Brian Wilson remains something of an enigma to the end. Perhaps this is inevitable with the greatest talents. They simply can't be explained. But the insight that comes shining through in this film—in all the acting performances, in all of the script, in all of the musical and cinematic choices—is that genius forever has a childlike quality. There is a kind of wonder we all have upon entering this world. Most of us find we can’t afford to maintain that feeling. We have to give it up to better deal with the practical necessities of life. And so we develop a hard outer shell and neglect the magic within. Brian Wilson never did.