Just before the Christmas of 1964, Brian Wilson suffered the most significant panic attack in pop-culture history. Triggered by in-flight turbulence, it left the fragile Beach Boy grounded for the rest of the band’s tour, unleashing a creative tsunami no one saw coming and none since has fully explained. The harmonic invention running through each song, the self-exposed yet epic vocals, and the feverish audio innovations that crested with 1966’s Pet Sounds signify an artist several exits past “ahead of his time”—just the troubled genius to inspire Hollywood’s next biopic symphony of false notes. Which makes the ones director Bill Pohlad hits at the peaks of Love & Mercy so thrilling, and ultimately, so tough to follow.
The film opens on Paul Dano’s note-perfect mid-Sixties Brian Wilson—pudgy, slumping, moonfaced, a mop-topped choirboy in clingy surfwear—sitting half-lit at a studio piano, smoking a cigarette, and musing aloud to an off-screen presence. “Sometimes it scares me to think about where the music comes from,” he says softly. As the dialogue continues, a sonic tide rises to drown it out while the screen fades to black for an action-packed minute. An aural collage by Atticus Ross and a squadron of soundmen—fuzzed-out vocal harmonies, in-studio dialogue, subliminal source-music textures and hues—build into a joyful, weeping, Surf und Drang that seems to put the young man’s interior life directly onto the screen. When a temblor from the collective unconscious (the orchestral backbeat of “Don’t Worry Baby”) segues into the actual 1964 hit, it’s followed by another, and another, as seaside frolics and soundstage performances in lustrous aqua and amber 16mm whiz through the Beach Boys’ first five years during the opening credits, inducing a swoon before we even start the story.
Stories, actually. This one has two, unfolding in parallel narratives 20 years apart. In one, Dano’s Wilson takes the Beatles’ new album Rubber Soul as a personal challenge. “I can take us further,” he tells his bandmates. “If you’ll let me stay at home in the shadows.” And that’s right where they leave him: the quiet suburban spaces that formed this most unquiet mind, whose flood of memories and sounds will change history or put him in the ground. In the other story, slim Eighties-foxy Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) meets a soft-spoken oddball at the Cadillac dealership where she works. She’s soon touched by the gentle, skittish soul (here played by John Cusack) who, his handler informs her, wrote half the songs that she grew up on.
Love & Mercy jumps back and forth between these two realities, each in a vividly realized time and place: the striving, LSD-dropping dawn of the Pet Sounds age—all lens flare and dreamy haze—and the air-sucking nightmare of mid-Eighties L.A., where the sound of Kenny G’s “Songbird” lets us know we’ve arrived in hell. Ledbetter quickly realizes that this is Wilson’s current address, where he lives under the tyrannical and exploitative “care” of infamous shrink Dr. Eugene Landy, played by a shag-wigged Paul Giamatti with demonic glee. The real Ledbetter was among Pohlad’s first points of contact as a producer considering a film on Wilson, and likely essential to getting it made. She’s also a strong perspective for a story of revelation, trust, and intimacy. But if someone’s life narrative includes creating a work that redefines pop music, how he met his second wife doesn’t seem a strong enough counterpoint. Ledbetter recognizes Landy’s death grip on Wilson, contacts the musician’s family, files papers, and even saves him from paternal tyranny. It’s a strong if conventional drama, whose tone clashes with the more imaginative film with which it’s woven—and which, though told through Wilson’s perspective, is oddly more realistic.
It would take far more than 20 years of nervous breakdowns, drug abuse, isolation, and toxic therapy to turn Dano’s Sixties Wilson into the Eighties version played by Cusack, who seems to have assembled him from fragments of his timid puppeteer in Being John Malkovich plus a few of Nicolas Cage’s quirkier performances. But Cusack’s role is by far the more thankless of the two—a pure, guileless naif subject to the greed and whims of others—while Dano’s naturalistic acting affords glimpses of the trauma that helped form him.
At one point, the film jumps back from a late-Eighties Moody Blues show (the horror) to a poetic tableau of the 23-year-old Wilson sitting alone at a walnut studio upright. He starts a lilting one-chord rhythm and tries out a brand new song: “I may not al-ways love you…”—the performance continues just as we see it, in Dano’s room voice, without audio gloss, as he works his way through the subtle twists of a song many now call the greatest ever recorded. In its closing refrain—“God only knows what I’d be with-out you”—the camera picks up another presence in the room, just behind and out-of-focus, and racks to the sofa’s gray-haired, hornrimmed occupant, clinking ice in a whiskey tumbler. Playing Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, Bill Camp is gorgeously understated as an archetypical alcoholic patriarch, Ed Sullivan–meets–J. Edgar Hoover, who needs barely raise an eyebrow to disembowel, and tries to strangle a perfect song in its crib. “It’s not a love song,” he scoffs at his son. “It’s a suicide note.”
It’s hard to imagine a fuller incarnation of this music’s ethereal sadness than what’s delivered in that scene. But as with most biopics of icons, history stacks the deck against sustained dramatic tension. Moments later, Wilson is in East-West Studios, wending bobby pins into a soundboard to create the tinkly piano sound of “God Only Knows.” A French horn player, vibraphonist, sleigh-bells player, and other dramatis personae take their places and the work before us blooms, the voices only audible as crystal choirs inside Wilson’s head, singing wordlessly behind his closed eyes as he lies on his back, as if in state. When Pohlad takes his most deliberate turn to psychedelia, near the end, using Kubrick’s 2001 ages-of-man perspective shifts to integrate his two Wilsons, the music is there to meet him: beatific, baroque, nostalgic, avant-garde, of both Eisenhower’s America and Manson’s. It may be too much to ask any film to remain in this world throughout. But this one transcends itself when it dares try.