Brian Wilson’s story is unusual by Pop history standards. A musical prodigy, who created his most notable and successful work before the age of 25, he soon succumbed to regular drug use as his mental health declined. His fears and neuroses plaguing him, creative output declined and by the early 80s he was bed-ridden and weighed over 300 pound. He at one point would have seemed a sure bet for the next name in rock’s tragic casualty list, along with Keith Moon, Elvis and Syd Barrett. But proving himself a rare survivor, in spite of his on-going near-schizophrenic illnesses and is still performing and recording music to this day – most of which is pretty good and nearly holds up to his early groundbreaking works. These are SMilE and Pet Sounds, and if you haven’t delved into Wilson, I greatly suggest giving all versions of SMilE listen to understand why this guy is so revered. Now he has his own biopic, which is greatly entertaining in spite of it’s flaws and has it’s own unique style and insight’s into this most unique of musical lives.
Veteran producer and recent director Bill Pohlad led the production, using inventive narrative devices to capture the essence of Wilson’s art as well as his strained genius. The narrative jumps between two key periods in Wilson’s life. Paul Dano plays a young Wilson, mental health declining while he reaches his creative peak. In the second narrative, John Cusack plays an older, increasingly troubled Wilson under the grip of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. This style is comparable to Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan cross-section, I’m Not There (screenwriter Oren Moverman worked on both). While that film took liberties with the life of Bob Dylan, drawing inspiration from his music and various stages of his persona, Love And Mercy sticks to the facts. Mythic moments of Wilson’s career such as the piano in the sandbox, the animals in the studio, the 1964 airborne panic attack – are all present. Much documented quotes and conversations are included, but they’re also condensed, which is probably necessary to not drag out exposition, but it does feel forced at times.
Minor script accuracy gripes aside, most of the early Wilson period is electrifyingly re-enacted, Paul Dano’s performance of Wilson being particularly accurate. Wilson himself is quoted as saying in regards to this performance, “I was really blown away by how close he [Dano] got to my personality. It’s amazing.” The scenes of recording Pet Sounds and Smile are a thrill, and seem to be very accurately depicted. Music geeks will get off on the attention to detail – the actor’s playing the session musicians are all really playing their instruments, the studios and locations look authentic, and even mythic scenes such as Wilson directing an entire orchestra to wear children’s fireman helmets are included. The early scenes steal the movie for me, and make the film worth watching for this alone. John Cusack does his best as the older Wilson and although Dano is a more realistic in appearance, Cusack’s performance effectively conveys the heartbreaking desperation of Wilson’s middle aged situation. Later scenes are dominated by exchanges between Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks) and the controlling psychotherapist and main antagonist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). A trim to these scenes wouldn’t have hurt, though they get their intended emotional effect across. Landy is portrayed completely as the enemy, and Ledbetter as Wilson’s savior, although many sources state that the real life Landy saved Wilson’s life (if the Daily Mail is to believed). No doubt their relationship was unhealthy towards the end, but perhaps in portraying Landy as an utter evil presence is some what a distortion of the truth.
Jumping between the two time-periods is sometimes erratic, with both having their own distinctive styles. Cinematography choices reflects this, with the early period seeming to be 35mm, while the later a digital aesthetic. The episodic structure of the film keeps things entertaining, as the script rarely falls on usual biography film cliches. These choices could be said to be experimental in the way that Wilson’s songwriting is – with edit choices comparable to the cut and paste techniques used in the recording of Good Vibrations for example. The sound design is also stand-out, with Atticus Ross drawing from Wilson’s studio archive to create something reflective of the auditory hallucinations Wilson experiences. The compositions sit side by side with the Beach Boys classics, tying the two narrative sections together, and amplifying the drug fueled paranoia of the 60s scenes immensely.
Technically impressive and emotionally powerful, this is an unconventional but polished dramatization of one of the most important musicians of our time. Wilson’s life is not greatly known outside of the realm of Beach Boys fanatics, so I feel this is an important story to push to the mainstream. Parts of the narrative might be slightly biased to certain party’s – the argument has been put out there that this is revisionist history praising Wilson’s current wife and demonizing Eugene Landy – but the story told within is a fascinating one, if simplified for mainstream audiences. I would argue more good than harm is done with the telling of this story, as it brings light on how debilitating mental health issues can be, even to some one seemingly blessed with talent and opportunity. Most importantly, this is a really entertaining and intelligently made film. Somewhat like the intentional musical errors found within some of Wilson’s best compositions, there are rough edges, but they only make the film more interesting.