Love and Mercy
Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Brian Wilson is a musical genius. After seeing “Love and Mercy” I want to go back and listen to “Pet Sounds” with a whole new attitude. I admit I was a huge Beach Boys fan growing up (in some ways it was the soundtrack of my early years) but always considered it a guilty pleasure. The director (Bill Pohlad – a producer of many prestigious indie films including “12 Years a Slave”, “Into the Wild” and “Brokeback Mountain” ) brought Brian Wilson’s mental illness and genius and vulnerability together in a palpable, visceral way. We watched the creation, from an insiders perspective, of “Good Vibrations” which has been called a “pocket symphony to God.” It was their best selling single of all time and one could feel his artistry confronting a whole new way to combine sounds. His “Wrecking Crew” (real musicians in the movie) patiently waited to see in what innovative way (with sounds including howling dogs, eerie notes from a Theremin, kettle drums, cowbells, and 2 bass lines in different keys) Brian would put together this new radical (for the time) music. He said he wanted to “stay ahead of the Beatles” and Rubber Soul and leave behind the “Surfing USA” persona of the Beach Boys. He met mighty resistance from his band and father on this.
The director (his only second time out directing) used an interesting technique of splitting Brian’s life between the younger Brian (an excellent Paul Dano) and the older Brian (an equally interesting John Cusack). The co-screenwriter (Oren Moverman) used this method less successfully in the 2007 biopic “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan — with six actors portraying the iconic musician. If the director could be accused of anything, it was of trying to put too much information out there but he did it in a vivid way.
In the first half of the film, Brian’s difficulties with his abusive father (supposedly causing Brian to lose much of his hearing in his right ear) is portrayed. When Brian plays a few bars of an early version of “God Only Knows” for his father, he is very critical (and probably jealous) and brushes him off with “I don’t care for it.” As an aside, Paul McCartney has said that “God Only Knows” is the “greatest song ever written.”
The beginning of Brian’s mental problems become evident early on with a panic attack aboard an airplane while traveling with the band. He decides to stay behind while they tour and instead make “some great music.” (Evidently, he was proven right: Rolling Stone Magazine voted “Pet Sounds” #2 Rock Album of all time.) While working on “Pet Sounds,” he starts hearing voices and is suffering mentally but manages to control his symptoms with his deep involvement with his music. Eventually he is exposed to psychedelic drugs and the second dose of LSD opens him up to different innovations in music but also begins his break from reality.
The movie toggles between the 60’s and the younger Brian’s musical genius and the 80’s with the more burnt-out older Brian’s isolation and downward cycle into mental illness. After three years, mostly spent in bed, the family arranges for him to have full-time help in the form of a controlling, cruel psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy (played by an over-the top Paul Giametti). Dr. Landy takes over his life – living with him and managing every aspect of his life – including his music. He cuts Brian off from his family, even his daughters, for over 2 years. When Brian tries to start a relationship with Melinda, a Cadillac saleswoman (well-played by Elizabeth Banks) Dr. Landy comes on strong and sadistic. The rest of the movie entails Melinda trying to get Brian out from under this virtual prison and resume his musical career and independent adult life. The director makes you feel Brian’s childlike sweetness and vulnerability. Apparently the psychologist had been overmedicating him for paranoid schizophrenia which was later found to be an incorrect diagnosis.
The best part of the movie is watching the creative process. Brian, working on a new song on his piano, with his feet planted in a giant sandbox is a great moment. Why NOT create in this delicious way? If you weren’t a Beach Boys fan when you walked into this movie, you may have a new appreciation for them when you leave.