Love and Mercy, Brian Wilson's story

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Love and Mercy

One of the most disturbing and strange stories in American music history has been the story of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. Packaged as the All-American boys from Southern California, they were the leading icons of surf and hot-rod rock and roll. The actual truth was far from that. The Wilsons, Brian, Carl and Dennis, were sons of a psychologically and physically abusive and controlling father Murry, a frustrated songwriter whose minimal talent was far exceeded by his oldest son Brian, a Mozart/Handel level genius who combined early rock and roll (especially Chuck Berry) with multi-part vocal harmonies. Brian’s descent into dysfunction, drug abuse and mental disorder is dramatized in Love and Mercy.

Two timelines are portrayed. One is during the early days and the 1966 production of the Beach Boys’ most ambitious album, Smile. Smile devolved into dissension and Brian’s collapse and became part of pop culture myth. The other time line is in the mid-80’s, when older Brian’s life (played by John Cusack) has been completely under the control of a “Psychiatrist to the Stars”, Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). At this point Brian has lost weight, stopped using drugs and is even “allowed” brief times alone, but his every move is monitored by Landy. During one of his outings, he meets his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and clashes begin immediately with Landy and his goon squad. The story follows Brian as he gradually begins to free himself from control and falls in love with Melinda. Anybody who has followed Brian in subsequent years knows that between his own growth and court orders, he was eventually freed from Landy (who lost his medical license), married Melinda and has resumed a career both as a soloist and with the current version of the Beach Boys.

When I originally heard that this movie would be made, I was afraid that they would dodge the true, awful story. While this movie only alludes to Brian’s worst times, when he didn’t get out of bed for 3 years, the part that we do see, both his decline and gradual re-emergence are difficult to watch sometimes because it’s just to painful. Brian’s mercurial early years and his over-medicated middle age are hard hard to take. The movie never falls down the pit into nostalgia, but portrays even the apparently happier early days as a carefully fabricated fiction.

As for performances, Paul Dano as young Brian, is amazing, channeling both Brian’s erratic brilliance as well as his deteriorating descent into hearing voices and having uncontrollable panic and rage attacks. John Cusack had a more difficult task, since he really does not look like Brian and needed to portray a guy who’s in a deep pit, over-medicated and controlled. I was initially skeptical, but I ended up finding a lot in Cusack’s portrayal. Most of it is low key, but it always seems like a lot is going on inside Cusack’s older Brian. Elizabeth Banks is also excellent as the near-saint, Melinda, somehow managing to find something to love in this strange, pop-idol-zombie that walks into the car dealership where she works. Finally, Paul Giamatti, with his chew the carpet style of acting has found a perfect role as the maniac-cult psychiatrist Landy. The rest of the cast is as good as they need to be.

I’m also amazed that director Bill Pohlad managed to make this work. He has mainly worked as a producer, has a thin directing resume, but he nailed this one. In an interview, he discussed trying to make this movie, which is so painful, stay truthful without completely losing the audience, which probably could not watch Brian’s worst years. Much of the movie was filmed in actual studio locations from the time and keeps an excellent period look. This is not a “fun in the sun” movie at all. It’s painful to watch but the performances and the fact that it’s true (it has Brian’s blessing as well as that of people around him) make it much better than a Grease-like musical period piece…well worth seeing.

Save the Texas Prairie Chicken
I have been initially a little skeptical with John Cusack (yes, the lack of resemblance is the issue). But I have heard such praise for his performance that the fact that he doesn't even look like he could be a distant cousin can be overlooked. I am glad to hear that enough people are liking this film. It is has really made me make up my mind to go and see it.
I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity - Edgar Allan Poe