When it comes to music, the Beach Boys are one group that transcends the art form. The harmonies blended perfectly with the way the group mixed their music, creating a unique sound that made you feel as if you were out on the beach enjoying the warm sun and breezy ocean air no matter where you might be (and it never matter that they weren’t actually surfers). There is no doubt there was genius behind their creativity, and like a lot of creative geniuses, Beach Boys front man, Brian Wilson, tapped into a suppressed darkness to find the magic of his artistry (along with a little bit of drug use here and there — it was the sixties after all). Director Bill Pohlad examines this well of madness in the biopic, Love & Mercy, but in staying true to his subject, turns the formula on its head to not only explore his fall into psychosis, but his rebirth from it, interlinking them with the same tenderness the Beach Boys delivered to their fans.
Paul Dano and John Cusack play two sides of the same Brian Wilson coin. Though it doesn’t seem the most natural fit, both actors match their performances in a way that really captures Wilson’s exceptional talent and hardened but sensitive soul. Dano plays Wilson at the height of Beach Boys fame as he searches for a new sound that will keep the group one step ahead of the likes of the Beatles and Elvis. Taking time off from their tour in Japan to stay home and write new material, Dano displays a quiet deterioration into heightened madness, one that isn’t necessarily controlled, but harnessed into a ridiculously creative force. He hires a slew of studio musicians to record all of the music using animals, convoluted instruments and sounds that nobody has ever heard before. When the group returns to record the vocals, the first cracks within the group begin to show, especially between Wilson and Mike Love (Jake Abel), Wilson’s occasional writing partner who doesn’t like the new, darker direction Wilson seems to be taking them into. He believes it to be extremely detrimental while Wilson remains confident in his need to release the feelings he has buried deep within.
It’s very interesting to parallel this story with Cusack, who plays Wilson as he fights to control the madness via a brutal psychotherapist named Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who literally controls every aspect of his life right down to the people he’s able to converse with. Cusack tackles the same quiet display of madness, but does so with a heightened abundance of small but noticeable ticks in his language and attention span — both of which can come off a bit awkward in the way he interacts with others. It turns out that Wilson (as well as his brothers, played by Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern) were abused as children, which produced the inability to connect with people in a normal way. He desperately wants people to care for him and believes that those trying to help him are sincere, while at the same time, he wants to remain inside of himself, rendering his ability to express himself outside of his music nearly impossible. When Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), he knows deep down that he needs her to help him — that something is wrong with him and that she might be the only connection he has to normalcy. But he’s so scared of defying Dr. Landy’s rules that he’s unable to express his fear in the right way. Has he been diagnosed incorrectly? Is Dr. Landy taking advantage of him because he’s a famous singer? Can Melinda help him recover from the strain of pills and abuse that he’s now being faced with because Dr. Landy claims he’s the only one that can help him? It’s very heartfelt and frightening, especially when Wilson can’t even go out on a date without Dr. Landy sitting next to him making sure that Melinda isn’t saying the wrong thing.
The story lines intertwine beautifully with one another, though I did find myself wanting to see much more of Dano’s half of the story, mostly because it dealt a lot more with building and creating the music, but also because Dano’s performance is so captivating. One of the best scenes happens about halfway through the film, after the band gets high in response to the poor sales of their most recent album, Pet Sounds (which history would prove to be one of their most unique and creatively authentic records). Wilson, bordering on a bout of depression, stumbles to his piano (which sits in a giant sandbox!) and starts banging away on the same chords over and over. The determination and fierce need to find something inside those chords is simply electric. He knows there’s something there, he just can’t find the right melody… it shows Wilson at his most creative and most desperate, leading to the song “Good Vibrations” and returning the group to their original sound. It didn’t matter how much Wilson had to say beyond the poppy, bubblegum style music they were famous for, the fans just weren’t ready for that message or sound, wanting something fresh and new, but familiar at the same time.
The other reason Dano’s half of the story made it rise above Cusack’s half is in the way Pohlad slowly portrays Wilson’s descent into his maddening condition. Cusack does a terrific job dealing with the inability to create because the drugs he’s been prescribed are keeping him from tapping into the creativity that allowed him so much freedom and genuine love of the craft, but Dano is given the chance to show him trying to understand and fight his condition. Watching him slowly slip away from “normalcy” into this weird place of hearing voices and sounds that aren’t really there (such as an orchestra of clanking dishes at a dinner party) is simply mesmerizing. I don’t want to take anything away from Cusack’s half of the film, though, as both Banks and Giamatti also give terrific performances in support of Cusack, and those portions of the film are necessary to give the full, complete picture of who Brian Wilson was and how he was able to overcome his demons (both internal and external) to become one of the most influential musicians of the sixties (and most possibly, the twentieth century).
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Jurassic World and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.