Life’s a Beach

Another movie I missed the first time around but streamed recently was Love & Mercy, the biopic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson was a musical genius as well as a very troubled man who was almost destroyed by misdiagnosed mental illness. The movie details his descent and eventual recovery in an unusual but effective way, by having two actors portray Wilson.

The first period roughly covers 1964 through 1966 when the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles in popularity. The Beach Boys had actually come on the scene a couple of years before the Beatles with the California sound that they created and refined. They were close to a family act, made up of Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and high school friend Al Jardine. The Wilsons’ father Murry was their manager early on. However in ‘64 panic attacks and other problems led Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) to stop traveling with the group. While the others toured, Brian concentrated on writing, including creating the groups seminal album “Pet Sounds” as well as their biggest hit “Good Vibrations.”

In the mid-1980s, Brian (John Cusack) is under constant supervision by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When shopping for a car, Brian meets saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). He’s attracted to her, and she to him. However, as she draws close to him she learns how completely Landy controls Brian’s life. He’s diagnosed Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic and keeps him in a fog with prescription drugs. Melinda sees Landy as a threat to Brian’s life and is determined to save him, even if it means they’ll be separated.

The movie flips back and forth between the two periods. Director Bill Pohlad and screenwriter Owen Moverman (who reworked an earlier script by Michael A. Lerner) had also considered adding a middle act to cover the three years in the 1970s that Brian stayed in bed and ballooned to 300 lbs. They would have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman for that section, but they ended up covering the period briefly with Dano and Cusack.

Pohlad’s reputation is as a producer, having worked on Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, Fair Game, 12 Years a Slave, and Wild, among other films. He’d only directed one other film 25 years earlier, his initial production credit Old Explorers. However, he does an excellent job in the director’s chair integrating the two facets of the story. He and Moverman have also done an incredible job with the accuracy of the story, even shooting scenes of the creation of Pet Sounds in the actual recording studio used for the album. (The scenes of Dano working with the musicians were improvised, though Dano listened to the tapes of the sessions and incorporated some lines that Brian Wilson actually said, including “You think we could get a horse in here?”)

Dano can be a very idiosyncratic actor, but as Brian he tones down those flourishes. It makes you feel the fragility of the character and understand when his world breaks apart. Although they didn’t collaborate at all on their performances, Cusack blends well with Dano, and having the two actors enhances the storytelling. As Landy, Giamatti is intense and scary. When he watched the film after it was completed, Wilson suffered a temporary disassociation and thought Giamatti actually was Lundy, which speaks to the veracity of his performance. The role of Melinda could have been one-dimensional, but Banks infuses it with a quiet strength and warmth.

The sound department for the film deserves special kudos, for sound becomes part of the plot. the dissonance within Brian’s brain is expressed in the film through heightened noise. A family dinner becomes excruciating for Brian as all the incidental background sounds are amplified. It’s like the music in his mind has turned on him and become a monster. It’s very effective.

During the credits, there’s footage of a recent performance by Brian Wilson of the song “Love & Mercy” that he wrote in the 80s, during the Landy years. (Landy had claimed co-writer status for all the work Wilson did at that time, though that was later corrected.) After watching the film, the song is a tender and poignant coda. So often the story of a musical genius ends as a tragedy. Love & Mercy shows how close Wilson came to that, but in the end it’s the story of resilience and survival.

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