A Tag-Team Review And Discussion Of The Themes Of The New Brian Wilson Biography
DIRECTED BY BILL POHLAD/2015
JIM TUDOR: “I was sitting in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin…”
That’s not a statement in regards to the film this review is covering. Rather, it’s the first line of the song of this movie’s namesake. Brian Wilson’s 1988 tune “Love & Mercy” is a vitally important one in the Beach Boy’s legendary songbook, if also a sadly lesser-known entry. Wilson was and perhaps still is a mad musical genius, realizing fully formed, intensely ornate, layered harmonies in his head, then bringing them to stunning life. If you don’t know “I Get Around”, “Help Me Rhonda”, “Good Vibrations”, or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, not to mention dozens of other iconic songs of the last century, you’ve been living under a very heavy rock on a very remote beach.
The fact that the makers of Wilson’s definitive biopic would choose this song (which was ironically sniped off the charts by his then-former band’s resurgence hit “Kokomo”, which Wilson had nothing to do with) as its title demonstrates that they clearly, clearly know their subject. Over time, it has served as nothing less than Wilson’s personal anthem. He closes his concerts with “Love & Mercy”, he signs his chat room postings “L&M, Brian”, and when he was being awarded by the Kennedy Center, the children’s choir singing “Love & Mercy” was the emotional closer that hit him hardest. The song is a beautiful, poetic and honest plea for love amid what turned out to be one of the worst portions of a life wrought with abuse, withdrawal and depression. Plus, it takes a bit of guts to go with a song with “crummy movie” in its opening line. That’s critic-bait if there ever was any. Fortunately, Love & Mercy the movie is far from crummy.
The songwriting credits of “Love & Mercy”, along with all the songs on the album that housed it, were co-credited to Dr. Eugene Landy, a gold-digging medical doctor who took horrible advantage of his famously troubled patient. Yes, Landy’s time with Wilson lead to partial recovery from the kind of drug abuse that killed Brian’s younger brother, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. But Landy shepherded such baby-steps of progress while also seizing control over every aspect of Brian’s life as well as his financial assets. When the time came for Wilson’s autobiography to be written, that too was the work of Landy. (Resulting in a deeply nightmarish read.) The film seems to posit, in fact, that Landy was quite apparently setting him up for a final fall.
This chapter of Brian Wilson’s life is the one portion that hasn’t been covered in the several other Brian Wilson/Beach Boys autobiographical films. Yet, it is the essential, and hopefully final bit of life drama for Wilson to overcome in what may be the ultimate story of a musician’s restoration. This occurred on a spiritual level, something not foreign to diehard fans of the harmonic sounds of the Beach Boys at their best. There is what I call “gospel simplicity” to their music. That is to say, beyond the woven California nostalgia mythology of cars and surfing, there lies the deepest of beauty that can point to the greatest truths – and anyone can grasp it, if they only opt to. Yet, this work is the product of the most troubled of lives, wrought with abuse, breakdown, and nearly continuous trauma.
ERIK YATES: In the scriptures, John 1:5 talks about a light shining in the darkness but the darkness was not able to comprehend it. While this passage is the beginning of an account of Christ’s life and ministry, in many ways this is the way Brian Wilson is portrayed throughout Love and Mercy.
As a younger man, we see Brian Wilson (portrayed beautifully by Paul Dano) struggling with the success of the Beach Boys, and the slow darkness that begins to envelop him. From a bleak relationship with his father, to crippling anxiety on an airplane, the darkness is slowly surrounding him. And yet, the music he is able to hear, channel, and create by himself serves as the light in his darkness.
The film jumps throughout its running time between the Brian Wilson of the 1960’s (played by Dano), and nearly 20 years later where we find Brian (played to great effect in the 1980’s by John Cusack) a hallow-shell of his former self, consumed by the darkness of his mental health, who is unable to buy a car without the approval of Dr. Eugene Landy, played by an effectively wicked Paul Giamatti. Yet in a simple act of meeting car saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the light breaks back into the darkness of Brian’s life and provides him with a chance for the love and mercy he has been craving for so long.
Through the backdrop of this story, what are some of the “greater truths” you mentioned that come shining through this film?
JIM TUDOR: If anyone else is like me, they may understand what it is like to have lived their life ascribed to a certain belief system for a very long time. I have, and still do, ascribe to Christianity. Amid years of sitting through countless sermons, classes, and contemplating what means what through that filter, such a faith can become justifiably laired as complexities of belief pile up, shift, grow, and dissipate. In certain circles, the intellectual can become overvalued to the point where the original intended simplicity (not to be confused with “stupidity”) is swept away within the sub-subculture, merely tolerated at best in a hollow smiling “that’s nice” kind of way. This can occur in most any long running collective, be it anarchy, other religions, film or music cultures. We dig ourselves away from the core via book knowledge, lectures, and over-thinking. Not that those things are bad at all, but when they become a wall apart from the penetrable basics, such is an observed consequence. And such is the way of the music of Brian Wilson, as the world has processed it.
ERIK YATES: We live in a world that likes to put things into a corner. Right vs. left. Evolution vs. Creationism. Evangelical Christian vs. Academia. What you just said though seems to indicate the truth that we all recognize, and that is that we are shaped by so many things. Our beliefs and our experiences, among other things weave into a giant tapestry. We are layered. For so many viewers of the film, the only thing they will associate with The Beach Boys are songs about summer, completely missing the deeper aspects of their music that came from a very layered soul.
JIM TUDOR: Love & Mercy demonstrates that the culturally ingrained hits of the Beach Boys came from somewhere – someone – and weren’t just always around. For example, before “Good Vibrations” was co-opted by orange juice commercials, Brian Wilson, his band, and a small army of studio musicians transversed studios and defied the rules of recording to forge something wholly unique. Through the regularly intercut flashbacks of the Beach Boys’ heyday (going as far as to restage the entire “Sloop John B” music video clip), we are effectively let into Wilson’s world as he orchestrated the groundbreaking album Pet Sounds, but we are also shown the early unfraying of his psyche, musically actualized painstakingly by Atticus Ross. Ross, who’s teamed with Trent Reznor on numerous David Fincher film scores (winning an Academy Award for The Social Network) mines the Beach Boys’ catalog in order to compose several experimental new compositions that effectively demonstrate Brian’s failing mental state throughout the film.
And yet, historically and for all time, the original music speaks for itself. Just as the beauty of natural creation – trees, waterfalls, the Grand Canyon, etc. – can be observed as awe inspiring both from afar and under a microscope, so too is the case with the music of Brian Wilson.
Although director Bill Pohlad only has one other such credit to his name (a 1990 film called Old Explorers), his producing credits are most impressive, including but not limited to 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, Wild, and Brokeback Mountain. While his directorial ability to selectively parse out information and keep his true story moving naturally is a tall feat, it’s one he doesn’t quite pull off perfectly. (A 2001: A Space Odyssey reference late in the film was ill-advised.) Nevertheless, Love & Mercy is still one of the best films of 2015 so far. It’s safe to say Pohlad learned a thing of two from his collaborations with Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick, Jean-Marc Vallee, and Ang Lee.
ERIK YATES: There are so many shades of light through this film. Where did you see that idea depicted in the characters that populate this story, and maybe in the themes of the Beach Boys’ songs and image?
JIM TUDOR: The Beach Boys built a career singing about endless summers, making it only fitting that Love & Mercy open in June. Of course, summer at the movies is always full of heroes and villains, and this film has true-life representations of both. Paul Giamatti as Landy, the unquestionable villain of the piece, does a fine job of doing exactly what he was hired to do: skeezy creepo. My nit to pick is that this skeezy creepo Landy oozes far too much conniving repulsion; shouldn’t Dr. Landy exhibit the surface charm of Lucifer? I’m at a loss how such a (for lack of a better term) Giamatti-ified specialist would get hired in the first place.
But then again, the film is told through the eyes of Wilson’s love interest, Melinda Ledbetter. (Just don’t think too hard about the narrative prevalence of the flashbacks.) The always charming and personable Banks is easy to root for and relate to. She indeed sees Landy for what he is almost immediately, as the doctor has it in for her as far as Brian is concerned. In the terms of the film, it is her love that must bring deliverance from the darkness of the past and present, and shine through she must, if Wilson is to finally have elusive restoration.
ERIK YATES: And in terms of the two contrasting depictions of Brian Wilson himself?
JIM TUDOR: As for the two versions of Brian Wilson intercut throughout the film (a gutsy move that I frankly didn’t expect to work), both are very good in their own ways. And although Dano bears quite the physical resemblance to young Wilson, and his internalized acting style compliments the character’s inner recoiling, the edge goes to John Cusack, who nails the older, far-gone Wilson in nuanced and unexpected ways. Cusack sells himself as Wilson without seemingly trying, occasionally working in true life hand gestures and odd enunciations. The whole performance might be the more conventional one, but it’s in no way a shallow one. It is the best work Cusack has done in quite some time. Together, both actors, despite the fact that they barely even resemble each other, make up a different kind of singular portrait of a sensitive, shattered genius of a man.
As far as this Brian Wilson fan is concerned, Love & Mercy is what you need tonight, and at the movies.