The history of popular music is loaded with sibling bands who developed knockout vocal harmonies by constantly practicing together from early childhood on. But the sound achieved by the Beach Boys, once they outgrew their bubblegummy surf-pop beginnings, was something that transcended that sort of DNA-sculpted harmonic convergence; it was a phenomenon that bordered on the miraculous. And it became that not merely because these young men’s voices blended so beautifully, but because Brian Wilson has a rare and particular sort of genius. He doesn’t hear the world the way most of the rest of us do; he hears infinitely more, and it transports and sometimes overwhelms him. It could have been for him that George Eliot wrote that sublime observation in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
It is thus most fitting that Bill Pohlad’s decades-spanning cinematic rendering of Brian Wilson’s struggle with mental illness, Love & Mercy, is no garden-variety biopic. Yes, there’s an element of hagiographic oversimplification in it; the good guys are very good and the bad guys very bad. But the film manages to evade the pitfall tropes of most stories about sensitive artists trying to keep their balance on the fine line between genius and madness. For that, credit tight writing and direction, terrific cinematography, really splendid acting by all the principals and above all, a soundtrack that deserves to win every single film sound award that exists.
Atticus Ross’s score blends actual Beach Boys and Wrecking Crew studio takes, newly recorded music, dialogue and ambient sounds with the voices in Brian’s head so seamlessly and persuasively that we feel that we’re getting a real hint of what it must be like to live inside a mind that raw, creative and tormented. There’s a masterfully executed dinner-table scene in which the clatter of cutlery very gradually increases in volume until we can almost share Brian’s panic attack at the din. The squirrel’s heartbeat indeed.
I came to this movie a bit dubious about the approach of casting Paul Dano as the young, ’60s-era Wilson at the height of his career success and John Cusack as the broken, terrified middle-aged man in the 1980s who can barely drag himself out of bed, let alone create music. The two actors don’t even look much alike; but the cognitive dissonance fades quickly, as they skillfully employ parallel body language to convey the protagonist’s mental state, their posture becoming more fetal whenever Wilson begins to slip into a vortex of panic and paranoia.
The way that Pohlad and screenwriter Michael Alan Lerner tell the story, Brian Wilson actually had plenty to be paranoid about: a hypercritical, unpleasable, emotionally and physically abusive father (Bill Camp) in his youth and Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an unscrupulous psychotherapist who controlled his movements as oppressively as if he had joined some crackpot religious cult in his middle years. There’s no one like Giamatti to portray a fast-talking, smarmy, sleazy, manipulative operator, and he plays “Dr. Feelgood” with juice and gusto; but if the movie has a notable fault, it’s that Landy is almost too over-the-top a villain to be real, even in Southern California.
Playing the rescuing angel to Landy’s overmedicating devil is Elizabeth Banks, of whom this movie has singlehandedly made me a fan. Her character, Melinda Ledbetter, starts out looking like a stereotypically vacuous “dumb blonde” but swiftly deconstructs that expectation, as she finds herself charmed by the older Wilson’s fragility and utter absence of pretension, and then increasingly concerned and proactive as the ever-hovering Landy begins to show his crooked hand.
It’s in these later-in-life segments starring Cusack that Love & Mercy hooks us by the heartstrings; but the studio segments in which the younger Brian conjures Pet Sounds and Smile out of seeming thin air – and wins the awestruck admiration of Hollywood’s best studio musicians in the process (while the other Beach Boys are off on tour) – are what make us want to stand up and cheer. It’s like Wilson’s brain is on fire, making synaptic connections that mere mortals cannot follow. Dano so winningly conveys this musical prodigy as a hyperperceptive, tender, openhearted fellow with fundamentally low self-esteem who just wants to share what he hears inside with the rest of the world – as opposed to the usual biopic trope of the narcissistic, megalomaniacal artistic genius – that we want to shake his bandmate/cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) for calling Brian a prima donna, for just not getting him.
Fortunately, with the help of Melinda Ledbetter, who became his second wife, the real Brian Wilson survived his ordeals and went on to make more music. So we’re still getting him, still privileged to an occasional glimpse into the rare aural wonderland that inhabits him. Love & Mercy is a beautifully rendered reminder of how lucky we are to have his work. It’s going to wind up on a whole lot of critics’ Ten Best lists at year’s end, so I enthusiastically recommend that you go see it at Upstate Films right now.
Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-4546, www.upstatefilms.org. Shows of Love & Mercy are: Sunday 3:15, 5:50, 8:20; Mon.-Tue. 5:50, 8:20; Wed. 3:15, 5:50, 8:20; Thur. 5:50, 8:20.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.