I’m not the biggest fan of biopics. You know, movies that try to tell a person’s whole life through generalized events, amidst amorphous timelines. However, this week I picked up a biopic on the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. As you probably know, the Wilsons grew up in Hawthorne, and went to Hawthorne High School. The 2014 film, Love & Mercy, explores Brian’s troubling life over a span of two decades in Los Angeles.
1960s Brian Wilson
Love & Mercy featured two different actors playing the main character over two separate time periods. Paul Dano expertly helmed the young Brian Wilson in the 1960s. We see him marvel at the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, then triumphantly respond with his opus, Pet Sounds. We see the withdrawal, the mental struggles, and painful dynamic with his father, Murry Wilson. A memorable scene in the film combined their fractured relationship (Brian dismissed and later sued his manager father) with the skeleton mockup of God Only Knows. This is the first part of that scene:
Dano, who arguably gets the more interesting part, achieved great heights with this role. He layered Wilson’s complex mental conditions and personal pain with a sensitive musical confidence.
1980s Brian Wilson
The film moves back and forth from the 1960s to the 1980s, where we see an older, more medicated Brian Wilson. He’s beautifully portrayed by John Cusack. The makers of the film were less concerned with depicting the physicality of Brian. Instead, they focused on capturing his emotional state through Dano and Cusack. This approach tied both portrayals together into a cohesive and heartbreaking story.
Heroes and Villains
Brian has stated public support for his father. This, despite claims of abuse and the sale (i.e., loss) of the Beach Boys catalog for a paltry $700,000 (estimated $4.7 million in 2018). In 1994, it was valued at $40 million ($67.6 million in 2018). At the same time, Murry Wilson’s influence was undeniable. The Beach Boys probably wouldn’t have existed without him. (Interesting side note: like Andy Lococo, Murry died suddenly in 1973 at the same age of 55.)
Love & Mercy paints a much clearer picture of two other characters central to Brian’s story. Elizabeth Banks, who played second wife Melinda, showed undying vigilance as Brian’s savior. She is an unmistakable hero in the film, opposed by the showbiz-enamored Eugene Landy, who Brian called in 2015, “a very fucked-up man.” Paul Giamatti portrays Landy, who is obsessively frightening, and at times, violently explosive.
Like many, I was merely a casual follower of the Beach Boys. I thought they did surf music. I thought maybe they were a 60s fad that went away with Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Gidget. But with the musical genius of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys were an influential force in music. And if you’re inclined to know just a little more, Love & Mercy is a satisfying starting point.