Love and Mercy
Love and Mercy, the new movie about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a deeply moving, often brilliant film. It makes up for all the crummy rock music biopics that have come before. Those films follow the predictable three act “Behind the Music” story arc: band gets big, gets drugged, then gets redeemed, through Jesus, Rehab, or a reunion tour.
Love and Mercy is also a tale of decline and salvation, but it’s far stranger and nuanced than its predecessors. The stakes are higher. Brian Wilson is arguably the greatest single musical genius from the fertile 60s. And music, for once, plays a central role in the story.
The filmmakers depict Brian’s life by cutting between two crucial periods: the late 60s, when he created his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and the early 80s when he was in the clutches of the evil, controlling psychotherapist Eugene Landy. The original title of the movie was Heroes and Villains, a reference to a Beach Boys song. It would have worked.
Brian plays hero in the first part. In the second he shares that role with his future wife Melinda. A great story must have a great villain, and this one’s got at least two. Brian’s nemesis in the early part is his physically and emotionally abusive father Murry. We see Murry hit him, followed by a close-up of Brian’s ear. It’s a hint at the rumor that the father deafened his son in one ear by beating him with a 2 x 4. But its Brian’s description in a restaurant of his father’s violence should make every parent think twice about raising a hand to their kids.
We see Murry belittling his son. Brian premiers “God Only Knows,” a song Paul McCartney called the greatest ever written, and his father dismisses it. But the worst scene begins with a pan past the master tapes from Smile, the legendary long lost follow-up to Pet Sounds. Brian is hunkered down before the tapes when his father walks in to announce that he’s sold the Beach Boy’s publishing rights for $750,000.” Brain says, “You can’t do that.” “Oh, yes I can. What else do you expect me to do? You fired me. I was lucky to get that. They aren’t worth much. You’re washed up.” Meanwhile Brian slumps, sinks down towards the floor, defeated.
It’s no wonder Brian goes crazy, and self-medicates. No child, no matter how talented, can withstand the constant scorn of a parent. But Brian doesn’t give up his music. He can’t, because it’s his salvation, at least in the first part of this film.
When we get to the extended scenes of the making of Pet Sounds, the movie soars. I’ve spent months of my life in recording studios with studio musicians. Movies always get this peculiar mixture of work and play wrong. Until this one. As Brian led crack LA players down a miraculous, untrod road, I felt like I was there. It helps that they used the actual master tapes from Pet Sounds – mostly instrumentals, and many different from what’s on the record. Bass player Carol Kaye politely asks him why she’s got a D in her chart when the song is in A. Brian says, “No, that’s right.” He coaches two cellists in the famous triplets from “Good Vibrations.” “More staccato! Make it like a propeller,” and he illustrates with hands and tongue. A snippet of the final mix plays was he sits behind the console, eyes closed, his face aglow. He’s in heaven all the time he’s recording.
Beach Boys’ songs are placed in the movie for maximum impact. Brian admits to Melinda that he “spent three years in bed.” He’s later shown there, on his back, face obscured by a bulging belly, to the strains of “In My Room.” Yikes.
The second part of the movie is less spectacular than the first, not the least because Brian is a shell of his former self, so shut down that he’s barely alive. But this part of the movie nails a truth about survivors of childhood trauma. Murry is ten years dead, but is horribly resurrected in Eugene Landy. Landy is every bit as controlling as Brian’s father. When he rages at Brian for the sin of taking a bite of a hamburger we see the grown man become a bewildered and terrified kid.
The acting throughout is top notch. Paul Dano is spectacular as Brian. It helps that he looks like him. John Cusack nails the older, diminished Brian, though he doesn’t have quite Dano’s impact, because he just doesn’t look like Brian. Elizabeth Banks plays a fine Melinda. Her warmth and recognition of the gentle soul inside Brian makes you believe she could save him. And Paul Giametti as Eugene Landy couldn’t get any more awful and creepy.
Edgy Art Film techniques often flop, but Love and Mercy is filled with odd camera angles and surprising edits that enhance the story, starting with the beginning. We see the young Brian Wilson mumbling, and then the picture cuts to black, as if the projector is broken. But it’s Brian’s life that is broken.
Movies tend to get one thing even more wrong than recording sessions: LSD trips. Love and Mercy acquits itself in this department, avoiding the usual hokey visual and audio distortions. There’s just Brian’s blasted face, and his tone of voice as he tells his first wife, “I saw God.” We’re inclined to believe him.
The filmmakers save the distortions for their depictions of Brian’s deteriorating mental state. Audio hallucinations are much more common among those suffering mental illness than visuals. When Brian cracks up at a dinner celebrating the success of “Good Vibrations,” we see his terrified face, and hear the clattering of silverware in a crescendo that drowns out the conversation.
I undoubtedly found the re-enactment of the recording of Pet Sounds so thrilling because I know the music like the back of my hand. So if you’re a Beach Boys fan, or thinking you might become one, I recommend listening to the following before you see the movie:
The album Pet Sounds. The songs “Surf’s Up,” “Until I Die” and “In My Room.”