Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Love and Mercy


I inherently mistrust biopics, and musical ones are often the worst. But a cursory examination of the Wiki entry on Brian Wilson seems to support most of what we see here, except for some time compression that doesn’t bother me much. This is an exceptionally good example of a questionable genre.

First, I liked how they started somewhere quite a bit after the beginning, the formation and rise to pop stardom of the Beach Boys. That is all taken care of pretty much during the credits, with a nicely “aged” collage of film clips of the band on stage and doing silly publicity stuff such as posing for shots to be used as album covers. It looks like the real thing, but these are the actors, not the real band. Then we switch to two different times. The first is when Wilson got too anxious to go touring and stayed home, to come up with the revolutionary Pet Sounds album. Here he is played by Paul Dano. (Dano learned how to play the piano, and does some of the singing. A song will begin with his voice, and then blend seamlessly into Wilson’s own falsetto soaring over the group’s harmonies.) This is mixed, back and forth, with John Cusack playing an older and much more screwed-up man, totally intimidated and dominated by a human pimple named “Dr.” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, outdoing himself in creepiness). Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, the car saleswoman who would eventually, with the help of the rest of the Wilson family, squeeze that fucking quack until he popped. They were married in 1995, and are still living happily ever after.

There is no question that Brian had a mental illness. At one point he spent almost three years in bed. But Landy had him drugged to the eyebrows, and oversaw him pretty much 24/7. He always heard music in his head, and eventually started hearing voices. He still hears them, apparently, but does not worry about them too much, and functions quite well.

The real genius of this film is in showing his methods. We go into the studio and hear the process of laying down tracks, which don’t sound like much of anything at first, but eventually meld into something awesome. He was way ahead of his time, and miles ahead of that murdering asshole Phil Spector when it came to mixing and overdubbing and such. (I hadn’t realized that Pet Soundswas a flop at first, at least in America. Europeans latched onto it at once.) It was only gradually that everyone recognized it was a seminal work. It consistently polls as the second-best album ever made, just behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is really a joy to see how it was put together. Wilson himself saw the movie, and said it was extremely accurate. As a bonus we get to see and hear Good Vibrations coming together. It was their biggest hit.

I adored the Beach Boys when I was a young man in small-town Texas. (Still do.) The sand, the surf, the sunshine, the beach babes, the T-Bird her daddy took away … it was a vision of a possible life somewhere that wasn’t Texas. I headed out to California as soon as I could. This movie is a real tribute to those golden California boys, the genius responsible for them, and the sound they created. I loved it.