The other day I went to a music movie and found myself trapped in a Hitchcock horror melodrama. There were heroes and villains, sounds from pets and God only knows how Brian Wilson survived the last half of the twentieth century. The twists and turns of his mind’s games and musical career are the stuff that Hollywood scriptwriters dreams are made of.
Every great musician has troubles with his manager (Brian’s father), with his band-mates (Mike Love) and a fanatical public that wants more of the same old music (cars, girls and surfing) year after year. And the demons that drive them to achieve greatness seem to come packaged with addictive behavior that threatens friends, family and careers.
Brian’s story, as retold in “Love and Mercy,” comes with an extra ingredient that makes for an explosive and sometimes painful to watch film: Dr. Eugene Landy, a therapist who takes control of Brian’s life and his music. Although Landy and the woman who became Brian’s second wife merit only a couple of lines in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, their struggle over Wilson provides the tension that director Bill Pohlad needed to build a drama. Landy’s the dividing line between the young Brian (played by Paul Dano) and the current version (John Cusack).
Most of the Beach Boys/Wilson saga is well documented so Pohlad moves deftly through the early success and focuses on the days in the L.A. studio when Brian tries to break from the past and articulate the vast array of sounds he hears. Wilson meshes smoothly with the famed session players of The Wrecking Crew (whose casting is so eerily accurate you think you might be watching documentary footage) and the result is the music released on the “Pet Sounds” album in 1966.
Record execs blew it off in favor of another hits collection but Paul McCartney said in a 1990 interview “It blew me out of the water…it is a totally classic record.” He and George Martin credit its production techniques as a major inspiration for Sgt. Pepper, released the next year.
Another music highlight is watching how Good Vibrations went from a piano chord to the Beach Boys biggest selling single and arguably one of the best rock anthems of all time. The film also depicts the first chapter of the almost 50-year song cycle of “Smile.”
“Love and Mercy” packs a lot of history into two hours and is in the first rank of those films trying to depict the magic of genius (“Amadeus” and “A Beautiful Mind”) but it is a
film about Brian Wilson. The other guys get reduced to minor status, which slights the significant contributions from Carl Wilson as lead vocalist, guitarist and producer and Mike Love as lyricist along with Al Jardine (California Saga) and Bruce Johnston (Disney Girls).
Like any good Beach Boys song, the movie jabs you with teenage angst, wraps it in some soothing nostalgia and leaves you standing in the California sunshine.