Was This the One with the High Voice?

Love & Mercy  A film by Bill Pohland.

“How did he die?” my wife said, as we were waiting for the opening of “Love & Mercy,” the new movie about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

“I don’t know.  I think he drowned.  But I think everyone drowned.”

I had previously told her Audrey Hepburn drowned.  I was thinking of Natalie Wood.

“I get these guys mixed up,” she said.

“Me too.”

Spoiler alert (though not to the movie, just to life): Brian Wilson is not dead, though you would certainly have assumed, as you watched this movie, that he was heading down the tubes.  If you were envisioning “Love and Mercy” as a story of a long slow demise, cheer up.  It’s longer and slower than we thought.

It was his brother who drowned, perhaps under the influence of drugs.  Another brother died of cancer.  So of the brothers who founded this famous group, Brian is the only one left.

I never took The Beach Boys seriously.  They were singing all through my time in high school, and a lot of what they sang about was high school, and they had a bright friendly sound, and the girls liked them.  I liked them okay, can probably sing most of their famous songs by heart.   My personal tastes ran to a darker sound (in every way): Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cook, above all Ray Charles, the great Ray Charles, the high priest.  I thought The Beach Boys played bubble gum music for suburban white boys.

So the funniest line for me in this movie came early, when the boys were back from a tour and discussing what they wanted to do next.  Brian suggested that he not tour anymore (partly because of various phobias), that he stay back and write.  “Have you heard Rubber Soul?” he asks his brothers.

They had all heard the new Beatles album, thought it was great.

“We can’t let them get ahead of us,” Brian said.

Uh, Brian, I don’t know how to break this to you, but they were already ahead.  Way ahead.  And as of now, as cultural figures and musicians, however you want to look at it, the Beach Boys aren’t in the same universe.  It’s ridiculous even to talk about them together.

But apparently—I didn’t know this—Brian Wilson was a real artist, with major ambitions.  In 1966—the time frame for roughly half of this movie—he produced an album—“Pet Sounds,”—that is considered one of the greatest and most inventive in rock history.  It includes the singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” and to be honest, I don’t hear all that much difference.  Other songs on the album sound more complex and interesting as we hear them in the movie, and do sound like an advance on the earlier work.  The single “Good Vibrations” also comes from this period, and it is one of their best.

Whatever I think of the music, I found the portrait of Brian Wilson fascinating.  The brilliant thing about the movie is that it alternates scenes from that creative period from a much darker period twenty years later.  Wilson is portrayed by two actors—Paul Dano and John Cusack—who don’t look alike and who apparently didn’t consult about how they were going to play him (that seems appropriate, because Brian in the eighties was a completely different person).  I don’t know where the idea for this movie came from, especially the idea of alternating time periods, but it works beautifully.  It’s like “I’m Not There,” in which Bob Dylan was portrayed by five different actors, and the lead writer in this film, Oren Moverman, was also credited in that one.

The young Brian is portrayed as a sensitive soul who wrote most of the music and was the genius behind the whole Beach Boys sound.  He was first inspired when he heard the harmonization of The Four Freshmen (!), another towering group of artists, and started harmonizing with his brothers and his whole family.  His father, who had been an unsuccessful small time musician, is presented as a dreadfully abusive, angry and negative figure whom all the brothers have to struggle against, Brian in particular.  He had been the group’s manager, but at some point they had fired him.  He doesn’t like—no surprise—the new tunes that Brian is producing for “Pet Sounds.”

Paul Dano portrays the early Brian as a spooked young man who hears voices, hears sounds, hears the sounds he wants his group to produce.  He is tormented by these things, but they are also the source of his creativity.  He hoped to expand the orchestration around the groups’ voices and make it much more complex.  He ran the risk of losing the Beach Boys sound and that bubble gum audience.  But he was an artist—the studio musicians he worked with recognized that—and he persevered.

Twenty years later, Brian had gone through a major blob period, staying in bed for most of the day, ballooning up to 300 pounds, indulging in food, drugs, and everything else.  Cocaine was a major drug of choice.  (A glance at the Wikepedia bio is seriously hair-raising.)  He was rescued from that state by a radical therapist named Eugene Landy, who took control of his life and more or less took the place of the abusive father, who had since died.  According to “Love & Mercy,” Brian was eventually rescued from the therapist by a car dealer named Melinda Ledbetter whom he meets as the film opens, played beautifully by the radiant Elizabeth Banks.

That creative early period is juxtaposed in the movie with this time when he came very close to going under.  Cusack plays him brilliantly as a sweet man who has just been more or less lobotomized by drugs, who on the one hand wants to be on his own, wants to run off with Melinda and have a life, and on the other hand is afraid of the addictive life that he might descend into.  Levy is portrayed as a monster, a perfect stand-in for the father, who not only beat his sons brutally with a belt, but once slapped Brian so hard that he lost much of his hearing in one ear.

What we’re seeing is this sensitive artist in these two moments of his life, which seem completely different (it’s even different actors!) but are all of a piece.  The earlier story is about an artist trying to take his popular work to another level.  The later one is of two people falling in  love.  Both include snarling villains who try to keep these things from happening.  And both have essentially happy endings, though the story as a whole doesn’t seem happy.  It’s nerve wracking most of the way.

Everything about the movie is superbly done, the acting, the direction, the script.  But the most brilliant thing is the idea itself.  Whoever got the idea to structure the movie this way, and hire two actors, is the real genius.