What is it about so many of history’s greatest artists that they suffered so much? I am sure that there are many studies in neurobiology suggesting that the explosion of ideas and concepts in the hyper-creative brain can – and does – sometimes explode the brain itself. Such is the case with Brian Wilson, the creative force behind The Beach Boys. “Oh come on”, you might say, “what is so genius about the poppy bounce of ‘California Girls’ or ‘Surfin’ USA? If that is truly your response, then you have obviously not listened carefully to ‘Pet Sounds’, generally acknowledged by music critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.
In ‘Love and Mercy’ we have a fascinating biographical film that explores both the origin and consequence of the mental illness that plagued Wilson throughout most of his life. As he acknowledges at one point in the film, he was ‘hearing voices’ from early in childhood; but his illness was ignored, disguised, misdiagnosed and ultimately abused until well into adulthood.
Wilson is played in the film with equal intensity and empathy by Paul Dano as the driving force behind the Beach Boys during the height of their popularity and subsequent decline; and by John Cusack as the over medicated victim of a scheming pop psychologist later in life. Using a flash-forward/flashback technique, filmmaker Bill Pohlad expertly fuses the growing illness that increasingly separates Wilson from his peers while he is creating his greatest work; with the collapsed hulk of a man, who spends his days in bed, drugged into a stupor. Because Dano has the more active character to portray, his goofy, hyper and often spaced out portrayal of Wilson is the more compelling of the two. But that does not give Cusack credit for his ability to instill the nearly comatose Wilson of his middle years with a deep yearning for normality and clarity in the haze of his existence.
For the young Wilson, the search is for new forms of musical expression, which he finds in ‘Pet Sounds’ by bringing together instruments, sounds and musical concepts that had never been tried before. His connection to the professional musicians in the studio who ‘get it’ is juxtaposed against his alienation from his band mates and music industry executives who only want the next platinum album, not an experimental masterpiece. For the mature Wilson, the yearning is for someone who can understand his illness. He finds this in a woman he meets while shopping for a new car. The salesman, Melinda Ledbetter, turns out to be the lifeline that Wilson has been searching for; and who ultimately helps him to find his way out of the darkness and into the light. As played by Elizabeth Banks – an actress and director who is having VERY big year after a long career as the friend or girlfriend – Melinda quickly recognizes the fact that Wilson is a virtual captive of his psychiatrist and legal guardian Eugene Landy. But her willingness and ability to fight the system on Wilson’s behalf develops over the course of the film, as she slowly but surely develops both a love for Wilson and the personal strength to help him.
The villain in this story is Landy. As played with extraordinary intensity – and no small measure of schizophrenia – Paul Giamatti embodies the evils of pop psychology of the period and its horrible impact on people with real mental illness. Giamatti is at once a screaming, vindictive schemer bent on total control of Brain Wilson and his life; and a charming, rational persona whose perceived ‘expertise’ has put him in this position. His fall in the end is both a triumph and a pity. You wonder if he was/is any less sick than Wilson.
Layered over and under all of this great storytelling is the music of Brian Wilson – from the early California Sound anthems with their intricate harmonies, to the contemporary, layered and unique sounds of “Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ (the project in process when Wilson completely broke down, and which was not finished until much later in life). For baby boomers, this is the music of our lives. And for not a few of us, this film is the story of our lives as well.
While this is a painful story, it is infused with humor, love and as noted above, great music. As such, it is a very well made and engaging film. In the end we are rewarded with a redemptive ending in which the good are rewarded, the evil punished and the genius brought back into the world of creation from which he was banished by illness, ignorance and culture. For many such geniuses – Van Gogh, Mozart and Basquiat for example – there was no such redemption. Feel good about this story; but reflect on the others. The line in Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ suggests that ‘this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you’. We must make it so.