Ter­rell’s Tune-Up Steve Ter­rell re­views Love & Mercy, a biopic about Beach Boy Brian Wil­son

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The non­stop crazy sym­phony in Wil­son’s head seems to be the source of his great­est works, though it of­ten sounds like a di­rect and ter­ri­fy­ing re­flec­tion of his in­ner tur­moil.

He­roes and vil­lains

“A choke of grief heart hard­ened I/Be­yond be­lief a bro­ken man too tough to cry.”

Those lines, from Brian Wil­son’s great­est song, “Surf ’s Up,” sum up a good por­tion of the new biopic

Love and Mercy. I don’t know whether Wil­son’s lyri­cist Van Dyke Parks was con­sciously de­scrib­ing Wil­son’s emo­tional state when he was col­lab­o­rat­ing with him on the songs for the al­bum Smile in the mid-’60s, but the words fit. And in­deed, it’s a bro­ken man at the cen­ter of Love

and Mercy. Wil­son, por­trayed by Paul Dano (’60s Brian) and John Cu­sack (’80s Brian) is psy­cho­log­i­cally shat­tered de­spite his pop­u­lar­ity, wealth, and ac­com­plish­ments.

In the two main pe­ri­ods cov­ered by this movie, Wil­son is seen as the vic­tim of loath­some bul­lies. First, there his fa­ther, Mur­ray, who phys­i­cally beat and psy­cho­log­i­cally abused him (“It’s not a love song, it’s a sui­cide note,” he growls when Brian plays him an early ver­sion of “God Only Knows.”). And then there’s Wil­son’s cousin and band­mate Mike Love, one of the most an­noy­ing jerks in the his­tory of rock ’n’ roll, who fought, crit­i­cized, and hu­mil­i­ated Wil­son at ev­ery turn dur­ing his most cre­ative pe­riod, the Pet Sounds and Smile years. “It’s not Beach Boys fun!” he snaps at Wil­son dur­ing the Pet

Sounds ses­sions. “Even the happy songs are sad.”

But the most in­tense and fear­some bully in Wil­son’s life is Dr. Eu­gene Landy (played mag­nif­i­cently by Paul Gia­matti). He was hired as a psy­chother­a­pist to help Wil­son over­come his ad­dic­tions, but turned into a vir­tual cap­tor who over­med­i­cated him and ripped him off fi­nan­cially. “I have it un­der con­trol,” he says to Wil­son’s girl­friend Melinda. “I am the con­trol.”

With all th­ese vil­lains here, there has to be a hero, and that’s Melinda Led­bet­ter, played by El­iz­a­beth Banks. A for­mer model who meets Wil­son when she’s work­ing as a Cadil­lac sales­woman, Melinda is not a frac­tion as force­ful as Landy. And as hard as she tries, she’s un­able to make Wil­son stand up for him­self. But her com­pas­sion and her de­ter­mi­na­tion even­tu­ally suc­ceed. (In real life, she and Wil­son mar­ried in 1995, sev­eral years af­ter Landy was van­quished.)

Speak­ing of real life, I’m not sure how close the movie is to ac­tual events. The film was made with the co­op­er­a­tion of Wil­son. (He ap­pears in the closing cred­its, singing the ti­tle song.) So it’s bound to be the ver­sion of events that he wants to tell – even though he doesn’t come out look­ing so gal­lant. I don’t think any­one would deny that Wil­son was as help­less and be­fud­dled as he ap­pears in the film. But was Landy re­ally as de­plorable as Gia­matti makes him? Was Led­bet­ter re­ally as an­gelic?

For a 50-plus-year Beach Boys fan like my­self, the best scenes are the ones in which Wil­son is in the stu­dio record­ing tracks for Pet Sounds and the ill-fated orig­i­nal Smile with that tight-knit gag­gle of stu­dio cats nick­named the Wreck­ing Crew. Dano por­trays Wil­son as wide-eyed and on fire with crazy ideas, much of which worked. You see the in­fa­mous scene in which Wil­son makes all the stu­dio mu­si­cians wear fire­men’s hel­mets while record­ing a track about fire. You see Wil­son putting bobby pins on pi­ano strings to get a crazy sound. And there are Wil­son’s dogs in the stu­dio bark­ing for the fi­nal fade-out of “Caro­line No.” (“Hey Chuck, do you think we could get a horse in here?” Wil­son asks an en­gi­neer.)

One of my fa­vorite el­e­ments of this movie are the lush, eerie sound col­lages rep­re­sent­ing the mu­sic, and some­times the demons, in Brian’s head. Rec­og­niz­able snip­pets of Wil­son/Beach Boys mu­sic rise and fall back into the swirling vor­tex of sound. I had to check the cred­its to make sure it wasn’t An­i­mal Col­lec­tive on the sound­track, a Wil­son-in­flu­enced group if ever there was one. It’s not. The man re­spon­si­ble is At­ti­cus Ross, who has won awards in­clud­ing an Os­car and a Grammy for his sound­tracks for The So­cial Net­work and The Girl With the Dragon Tat­too, re­spec­tively. Th­ese strange sonic mon­tages – some­times sweet and heav­enly, some­times dark and tor­ment­ing – are es­sen­tial to the story. The non­stop crazy sym­phony in Wil­son’s head seems to be the source of his great­est works, though it of­ten sounds like a di­rect and ter­ri­fy­ing re­flec­tion of his in­ner tur­moil.

I’m not sure how much Love and Mercy will ap­peal to those who don’t know or don’t care about Wil­son’s mu­sic. (And be­lieve it or not, there are peo­ple like that who walk the Earth.) But for those of us who have known and loved the Brian Wil­son song­book, it’s a must-see.

New Mex­ico side trip: They aren’t men­tioned in Love and Mercy, but there are a cou­ple of ob­scure New Mex­ico con­nec­tions in the Wil­son/ Landy saga. In Au­gust 1994, Beach Boy Al Jar­dine and two com­pa­nies rep­re­sent­ing the band — Brother Records and Brother Tours, Inc. — filed a law­suit in Santa Fe, ac­cus­ing Wil­son, Landy, and HarperCollins pub­lish­ers of de­fam­ing the Beach Boys with the now dis­cred­ited 1991 Wil­son “au­to­bi­og­ra­phy”

Wouldn’t It Be Nice. That book painted an ugly por­trait of the other band mem­bers and made Landy look as heroic as he ap­pears vil­lain­ous in Love and

Mercy. (Wil­son has since said he skimmed a draft of that book and did none of the writ­ing.)

The plain­tiffs also filed a vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal suit in New Hamp­shire. Wil­son’s court-ap­pointed con­ser­va­tor at the time, Jerome S. Bil­let, told me in 1994 that those were the only states that al­lowed suits to be filed three years af­ter the al­leged defama­tion. But no Beach Boy ever had to ap­pear in a Santa Fe court­room. Ac­cord­ing to court records, a year later, Wil­son was qui­etly dis­missed as a de­fen­dant. The case was dis­missed in early 1999.

Af­ter Landy lost his li­cense to prac­tice psy­chol­ogy in Cal­i­for­nia, he still re­tained his li­cense in two states: Hawaii and – you guessed it – New Mex­ico. I don’t know how ac­tive he was here, but state records show he was li­censed here be­tween 1981 and his death in 2006. He’d had his li­cense re­newed in the state the year be­fore. There are no vi­o­la­tions or dis­ci­pline re­ports on his record here.

Good vi­bra­tions: Paul Dano, right, as Brian Wil­son

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