Love & Mercy is based on the life of Brian Wilson, best known as a founding member of the Beach Boys, but now recognised as a musical icon in his own right. It was released in 2014, and stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilsons respectively, and includes Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy in the supporting cast.
The movie skips over Wilson’s childhood, during which he endured trauma and violence at the hands of his abusive father, and instead the opening credits play over scenes showing Wilson’s early success with the Beach Boys, with hits such as ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Fun Fun Fun’. On first listen they seem like happy pop songs, emblematic of the sun-drenched Californian teenage lifestyle, but on dissection you can hear how innovative the layered harmonies and complex arrangements are.
Wilson found the life of the touring chart-topping musician difficult and he suggested to the band that he stay at home and focus on songwriting. The other members reluctantly agreed, and so while they were on tour Wilson began working on what would become Pet Sounds. The seasoned session musicians who worked with him on the original recordings were blown away by his inventiveness, his vision and boundless enthusiasm, but the rest of the Beach Boys, especially Mike Love, hated the record, thinking the lyrics were too dark. The fans agreed and it was the worst selling record of the Beach Boys’ career at that point, but the critics lauded it and for once they were right; Pet Sounds is now recognised as one of the landmark albums of the sixties and a work of genius.
Wilson became addicted to drugs and alcohol, perhaps in an attempt to self-medicate the mental illness which has dogged him throughout his life. He has suffered many nervous breakdowns and been diagnosed as suffering from both bi-polar and schizoaffective disorders, with auditory hallucinations. These episodes are brilliantly depicted in the film, in particular a dinner party scene where a stressed and fragile Brian is overwhelmed by the ambient sounds of cutlery knocking against plates.
Love & Mercy alternates between scenes of the young Brian at the height of his success and the older Brian, who was controlled, manipulated and over-medicated by Doctor Eugene Landy, a immoral psychologist who was bleeding Brian dry financially. Brian’s second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) is mainly responsible for freeing him from Landy’s malign influence. (Landy was later discredited and had his license revoked based on his treatment of Wilson.) I read Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story which was co-authored by Landy and has since been disowned by Wilson. It certainly paints Landy in a favourable light and given the subsequent revelations is not to be taken seriously.
Dano and Cusack are both wonderful in the dual lead roles, and their versions of Wilson are sympathetic and moving. But the stand-out for me was Elizabeth Banks whose portrayal of Ledbetter is understated and empathetic. It’s a less showy role but she gives it huge depth.
Being asked to contribute the soundtrack for a biopic about a musical genius must have been both intimidating and inspiring, and Atticus Ross hits it out of the park. He has worked with Trent Reznor on The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on electronic influenced scores. In Love & Mercy he creates a more traditional orchestral score, but with cacophonous, distorted and disorientating elements which convey Brian’s mental state.
I have often wondered why mental illness has persisted throughout human history despite natural selection. I think perhaps one of the many reasons is that some people who are psychiatrically atypical (perhaps as a result of autism, schizoprenia, bi-polar, or depression) can create beauty in our world. They transform ordinary life into something magical, communicate something common to us all in a remarkable way. If anyone is an example of this it is Brian Wilson and this film is a masterful tribute to one of the greatest popular composers of the last century.