STAYING TRUE TO REALITY
There have been a few attempts to tell the Beach Boys’ story on film. This is the only one to receive the band leader’s approval
With a shuffling gait and wearing jeans, sneakers and a blue plaid shirt that matches his eyes, Brian Wilson is at the centre of a Hollywood whirlwind.
He’s been rushing to screenings, giving interviews and posing for photos as his new biopic prepares to hit Australian theatres today. “It’s a trip,” Wilson says. Ten years in the making, Love & Mercy takes an unflinching look at Wilson’s powerful creative energy and debilitating mental illness, demystifying the man who created the sunny sounds of the Beach Boys before descending into a dark world of personal demons.
“The first time I watched it, it was like a real test for my emotions,” Wilson says in his typical clipped diction. “It portrays me so well that I felt like I was being pushed into the movie.”
That meant re-experiencing some of his highest highs and lowest lows.
Love & Mercy focuses on two formative periods in the musician’s life, separated by 20 years. Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson at perhaps the peak of his creative genius, when he stayed behind from the Beach Boys’ world tour to create his opus Pet Sounds.
Feeling confined by surf music and inspired by the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, Wilson wanted to expand the Beach Boys’ sound and give form to the melodies and harmonies he imagined.
He employed an orchestra, climbed inside a piano to plink its strings with a bobby pin, and incorporated everyday sounds like keys jangling or dogs barking into the songs.
Commercially disappointing at first, Pet Sounds is now considered one of the most influential compositions in popular music.
But it was such a sonic departure that it caused a rift in the band, which exacerbated an emerging personal crisis for Wilson. He began showing signs of mental illness, hearing cacophonous voices and sounds in his head.
John Cusack plays Wilson in the 1980s, a broken man, heavily medicated and terribly insecure, under constant watch by his Svengali-like psychotherapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). While shopping for a Cadillac, the troubled musician forms an instant connection with saleslady Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who would go on to liberate him from Landy’s care and become Wilson’s second wife.
Director Bill Pohlad interweaves the two narratives, creating a portrait both painful and triumphant. “I was looking at how to get into the story in a way that wasn’t a typical biopic. I hate that,” says Pohlad, a longtime producer whose credits include Wild and 12 Years A Slave. “If we were going to do a movie about Brian, I wanted it to be intimate. I wanted to know what this guy was all about.”
Wilson and Ledbetter were involved with the making of the film, spending time and sharing personal stories with the director and his cast.
Wilson says he was nervous about the movie and found parts of it upsetting to watch (“Some of it was pretty rough”), but he also came away inspired – reminded, perhaps, of that feeling of all-encompassing creativity. “I can see Paul Dano doing it in the studio, but I cannot remember actually recording in the studio,” Wilson says.
“It brings back memories, like ‘How could I have done that?!’”
“That was probably my favourite week of acting ever,” Dano says, “doing those scenes in the studio where he recorded Pet Sounds.”
Cusack and Wilson say they gleaned much of their insight into Wilson by listening to his music.
Both actors say they were honoured to portray such a sensitive, intuitive character.
“When you see his music, you see he’s a spirit – a celestial spirit that can do anything, his imagination brings it – and we need those north stars,” Cusack says.
John Cusack as Brian Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter in
Love & Mercy.