We see a leitmotif of the twentysomething, wholesome, well-fed Brian Wilson trippin’ out, eyes closed, hands above his head. He’s not on drugs, he’s just feeling the vibrations, hearing beautiful sounds.
The movie, Love and Mercy, has wonderful, non-trivial depictions of Wilson working in the studio, directing and pushing session players as he records the music that becomes Pet Sounds. This has been much appreciated in the press, eg see A.O. Scott/NYT, Stephanie Zacharek/Village Voice, and Anthony Lane/New Yorker, who writes:
‘… the movie is never better than when it shows [Wilson] sliding bobby pins onto the strings of a grand piano to tweak the tone, or forcing a pair of cellists to repeat a passage from Good Vibrations … Too many music bio-pics breeze over the hard construction work of the creative act, as if embarrassed by the taking of such pains. [Director Bill] Pohlad, to his credit, digs in deep.’
Indeed, that centrepiece is so inspiring, so powerfully affecting that it’s easy to overlook the tableaus of Wilson tuning in to the universe. They show nothing more than Wilson sitting, or lying back, in bed or a car bonnet with eyes shut, or standing with hands in the air. There is nothing being explained — this is not something that can be explained — just that sometimes, a person who may be an artist, knows why she or he is here.
Even if we are so sophisticated that the idea of “beauty” in art is a problem, being receptive to beauty in nature still seems perfectly human. These moments of Wilson in communion are mysterious — but anyone can guess that the artist is encountering something we may as well call beautiful. We can’t visit the sublime, it visits us. Our luck is that this artist is able to transmit something of that to the rest of us. That is, he has been given, and is going to pass on, a gift.
As Paul Simon so exactly put in The Late Great Johnny Ace — ‘It was the year of the Stones / A year after JFK / We were staying up all night / And giving the days away / And the music was flowing / Amazing / And blowing my way’
The shadow of the Beach Boys
Of course the film also offers the unhappy story that is a large part of Brian Wilson’s life: from the abusive father Murry (who habitually slapped the very young Brian), to his aggressive cousin, fellow Beach Boy and lyricist Mike Love (who says at one point: ‘Who are you, Mozart?’), to the grotesque and comic-terrifying shrink, Eugene Landy, who kept Wilson in a state of dependency and as a “virtual captive” for more than 10 years from 1975 (after Wilson eats a hamburger against Landy’s command, Landy grabs the burger out of Wilson’s hand and shouts in his face: ‘You have no idea of the consequences!’).
John Cusack plays the older Brian gingerly, as a broken man. Paul Dano as the younger Brian makes his delicate responses to the world around the very picture of a sensitive soul you want to protect.
That role is left to Wilson’s second wife-to-be, Melinda Ledbetter, in a superbly understated, not at all saintly performance by Elizabeth Banks, who Cusack/Wilson meets in a car dealership inside a blue Chevy. In the movie as in real life, she is the catalyst for his salvation from Landy’s clutches.
It’s non-fiction, but is it true?
But I wondered, as anyone might, Is the movie true? We can thank the excellent David Edelstein of Vulture for having done the homework:
‘I’d lost my heart to the movie but still didn’t trust it. I wanted to fact-check it, to do my part to protect Wilson’s legacy, even — maybe especially — from people (the filmmakers, Wilson’s second wife) claiming to have his best interests in mind … After powering through three books, many articles, and a documentary, I can now say that Love and Mercy has whopping gaps but that few of them matter. It has the two things a Brian Wilson story needs above all: a sense of mystery and the right vibrations — good, bad, weird.’
And if we can trust the man himself, he was asked by fly magazine recently, ‘How accurate would you say your [film] portrayal is depicted and the events that were happening around you at that time?’
Brian Wilson: ‘Very accurate. Very, very accurate.’
A satisfying aspect of the film is that it serves as revenge art, even as it is careful to respect Wilson’s refusal to blame his father and Landy. This pair of self-serving monster-dads are given repellent intensity by Bill Camp and Paul Giamatti — exposing their cruelty to the world may not redeem a thing for Wilson, but sure feels cathartic for the viewer.
Only God Knows
The other appropriate satisfaction is that this film is great to hear — a good cinema will do justice to the wonderful soundtrack of audio collages by Atticus Ross. And the way that Good Vibrations sounds when the Beach Boys put their heads together at the microphones, the song Wilson’s first wife toasts as his ‘pocket symphony to God’. And also to hear God Only Knows as a piano draft (crushingly received by father Murry) and then its studio rendition.
Paul McCartney called it his favourite song: ‘God Only Knows is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it … I’ve actually performed it with [Wilson] and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down.’
Well, down here in the distant 45th basement level of the Tower of Song, when God Only Knows comes on the radio, I, too, instantly feel a stab of love-happy-sadness, and while it plays I can physically locate my “heart”.
The consolation of beauty?
It seems a wonder that despite scorn and opposition, Wilson was able to realise some of his vision. A wonder that after all the travails he has outlived his two chief tormentors, when there must have been any number of reasons and occasions that he may not have survived. Is it crazy to suppose that he was partly saved by the apprehension of beauty, consoled by the light through the cracks?
Wilson remarked, in a very useful 2002 Guardian interview: ‘I’m having much more fun than I did as a Beach Boy. Because I’m no longer a Beach Boy. I’m Brian Wilson.’
A reluctant performer, he said about playing the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Well, I felt a love vibration that was so powerful, I couldn’t believe it. It was a love vibe, a very powerful love vibe. Everybody loves love … So I put love in my voice and my music.’
Brian Wilson is free, free at last.
(Unjustly, the movie was not a commercial success overseas, so see it quick.)