Bill Pohlad, the producer of such notable films as Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years a Slave, only directed one film in his life and that was back in 1990. So it’s quite remarkable that his second effort, a biopic about Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame, is so enjoyable and innovative. The film focuses on two different times in Wilson’s life—jumping back and forth between his heyday when he created the landmark album Pet Sounds, and later in the late 80s and early 90s, after he was experiencing significant mental health issues and came under the spell of a Svengali-like therapist. The early Wilson is played brilliantly by Paul Dano who looks and sounds like the legendary singer-composer. Less successful is John Cusack in the role of the troubled older Wilson.
We first meet the younger Wilson after he experiences a panic attack on an airplane and soon is asking the rest of the Beach Boys if he could stay home and work on new songs while the boys go off touring in Japan. In a fascinating part of the film, Dano shows off his acting chops channeling an eccentric Wilson putting together Pet Sounds, an album (as we’re reminded in the film) that Paul McCartney called “the greatest rock album of all time.”
Troubled by voices in his head, Wilson manages to sublimate the cacophony and turn it into music on the new album. Christopher Gray writing in Slant Magazine cogently explains how Wilson accomplished this, aided by the film’s composer: “With a series of brilliantly composed sound collages containing snatches of harmony, studio banter, and kernels of hooks, composer Atticus Ross gives a tangible impression of the clutter in Wilson’s mind blossoming into Pet Sounds, an album that’s simultaneously elemental and maximalist, deconstructionist and rigorously composed.”
Pohlad provides a fascinating glimpse into how Wilson went about creating Pet Sounds, working with the ‘Wrecking Crew’, the famed straight-laced group of studio musicians who initially are befuddled by the eccentric Wilson but eventually warm up to him (one of the musicians tells Wilson that he enjoyed working with him on Pet Sounds above anyone else in his career). The use of real-life musicians — and the scenes being shot in a documentary style utilizing hand-held 16-millimeter cameras — adds to the film’s verisimilitude.
The conflict in the scenes involving Wilson’s creative period focuses on his father, Murry, winningly played by Bill Camp. We come to understand that a good deal of Wilson’s problems are related to his overcritical father. In a startling scene, Wilson plays a solo piano version of one of his most acclaimed songs, ‘God Only Knows’. At the end of the scene, the camera pans back revealing a critical Murry telling Wilson that the song is wishy-washy. While it’s clear Murry was a martinet, I still wanted to see the character fleshed out a bit more (the best the film’s scenarists can do is show Murry awkwardly blurt out “I love you” to Wilson in an angry tone of voice). After his father’s death from a heart attack in 1973, Brian praised his father for pushing the group to achieve.
Mike Love, Wilson’s cousin and fellow Beach Boys member, acts as an additional foil in the Wilson heyday sequences. As he’s depicted here, Love wanted Wilson to write simpler songs in the vein of the hits the group churned out in their ‘surfer’ days. Like the father, Love was a character I wanted to know a little bit more about, although I can understand the screenwriters had limited time to tell their story.
The events involving Wilson in the 80s prove just as fascinating as his earlier incarnation. Wilson is propelled into a new depressive phase when he falls under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy, the sociopathic therapist who controls virtually his every move. Paul Giamatti is mesmerizing as the over-the-top Svengali who controls the vulnerable Brian with a massive amount of medication. Pohlad claims that John Cusack does look like Brian at that time in his life, but even if this is true, Cusack’s overall performance is clearly not as good as Dano’s. It’s hard to say what’s wrong with Cusack here—perhaps he plays Wilson as a little too creepy—whatever the case, Cusack just isn’t quite right for the part (not terribly bad, but just not quite right!).
Also quite enjoyable is Elizabeth Banks playing Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, who eventually becomes Wilson’s wife. It’s a strong female part for various reasons—I liked how they come to meet each other for the first time (inside a showroom Cadillac) and her surprise when she finds out that this strange guy is actually THE Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The best part is when she confronts Landy and eventually wrests control of Wilson from him. I’m informed that the actual mechanics of how Landy’s grip over Wilson ended was part fiction (the maid did not have a hand in getting a hold of Wilson’s altered will). Nonetheless a little dramatic license is forgivable.
Love & Mercy manages to be a cut above some biopics that have recently appeared on the silver screen. The combination of depicting Wilson’s creative process in his heyday with the Beach Boys and his later struggles attempting to extricate himself from the influence of a vicious psychiatrist, proves fascinating. Brian Wilson of course had some critical collaborators in his musical career, and they’ve been given short shrift here. This is of course a biopic and placing the protagonist on a pedestal is expected. It’s done a little less here, and for that we should be grateful.