Brian Wil­son’s ge­nius, men­tal is­sues fo­cus of film


With a shuf­fling gait and wear­ing jeans, sneak­ers and a blue plaid shirt that matches his eyes, Brian Wil­son is at the cen­ter of a Hol­ly­wood whirl­wind.

This day, he’s been rush­ing to screen­ings, giv­ing in­ter­views and pos­ing for pho­tos at a Los An­ge­les ho­tel as his new biopic pre­pares to hit the­aters on Fri­day. “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 said 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 for- ma­tive 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,” said 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 said 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 said. “It brings back mem­o­ries, like ‘How could I have done that?!’”

“That was prob­a­bly my fa­vorite week of act­ing ever,” Dano said, “do­ing those scenes in the stu­dio where he recorded ‘Pet Sounds’ in the ’60s.”

Al­ready a gui­tarist, Dano learned to play pi­ano for the role and also does his own singing on screen.

Though he and Cu­sack each spent am­ple time with Wil­son, both ac­tors said they gleaned much of their in­sight into him by lis­ten­ing to his mu­sic.

“That’s what brought me clos­est to the char­ac­ter, was play­ing and singing for sure,” Dano said. “He’s in his mu­sic.”

Both ac­tors said they were hon­ored to por­tray such a sen­si­tive, in­tu­itive and cre­ative char­ac­ter, and that spend­ing time with him was its own source of in­spi­ra­tion and light.

“I also think about a guy who’s that free and un­for­mat­ted, be­cause those peo­ple are very im­por­tant for us,” Cu­sack said. “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.”

As for Wil­son, who suf­fers from schizoaf­fec­tive dis­or­der, he says th­ese days, ex­er­cise makes him happy — “I go to a park and walk and walk and walk” — and, of course, mu­sic. He’s pre­par­ing to tour the U.S. this sum­mer and the UK in the fall.

Though he’s hav­ing an “off pe­riod” where he hasn’t writ­ten for a few months, the 72-year-old knows there’s more mu­sic in him. It’s his lan­guage, he said, his means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“It’s all done through mu­sic, that’s how I ex­plain it,” Wil­son said. “As a per­son, I couldn’t ex­plain noth­ing. But with mu­sic, I can ex­plain some­thing.”


In this Tues­day, June 2, photo, ac­tors John Cu­sack, from left, Paul Dano, direc­tor Bill Pohlad, El­iz­a­beth Banks, and mu­si­cian Brian Wil­son pose for a por­trait dur­ing press day for “Love & Mercy” at The Four Sea­sons in Los An­ge­les.

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