Brian Wilson has been shoved down my throat for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories, in fact, have less to do with sitting on my mother’s knee or playing in a crib, than with some sort of ‘Brian is Back!’ campaign. There were late night television spots peddling the Best of the Beach Boys, and the annual Labor Day marathons of Beach Boys music on my favorite local oldies station WRKO, which was always a nice way to signal the end of the summer. And of course, there are memories of Brian shambling through random talk show appearances. Did he really appear on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin to talk about meditating? I seem to remember that. There was even a vintage appearance on the early days of NBC Saturday Night, where a fat, bearded Wilson sat a piano and croaked out ‘Good Vibrations’. Audiences were probably wondering what the fuss was about. This nervous looking giant was supposed to be a heavenly mixed cross between Phil Spector and George Gershwin. He looked like a homeless man. All he needed was a cardboard sign around his neck: Will Harmonize For Food.
The comeback unfolded properly many years later. In the 2000s, Wilson seemed to blossom into the “Brian Wilson” we’d all hoped to see. He performs in concert, he records new music, he seems alert enough to appreciate his place in music history, and to the great relief of many, me included, he can still hit the high notes. Most of them, anyway. There’s something deliciously romantic about a pop star who loses his mind but not his voice.
The Wilson story, filled as it is with 1960s music biz lore, sadistic father figures, diabolical self-help gurus, and a fractured family saga, is catnip for biographers and filmmakers. We’ve already had several movies and documentaries, the best being a four-hour drama from VH1 in 2000 called The Beach Boys: An American Family. The story is so big, so sprawling, that only pieces of it can be told at a time. It’s so big that Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy needed two actors to play Wilson, with Paul Dano as the young, insecure Brian, and John Cusack as the older shell-shocked Brian. The screenplay, culled as much from Wilson folklore as from the various biographies, jumps back and forth in time, which isn’t a bad idea (and face it, the Wilson story has been told so many times that it’s becoming redundant) but Pohland and his writers never figure out how Wilson went from being a fun-loving, slightly neurotic kid genius to a paranoid shut-in. Instead, they try to distract us with what seem like key moments from the Wilson playbook: his nervous breakdown onboard a plane; his struggles to make 'Pet Sounds' and 'Smile', his two masterpieces; his first LSD experience; the piano in the sandbox. But the scenes, though masterfully recreated, feel empty, like a pageant, rather than a story. These scenes are interspersed with scenes of the older Brian struggling in the grip of Dr. Eugene Landy, the crackpot who kept Brian overly sedated for nearly two decades. The latter part of the story would’ve made a fine movie in itself, particularly when Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter, a kindhearted woman who comes between Wilson and Landy, but the shifting back and forth kills any drama. It’s an amusing technical trick, but not especially moving.
Now and then, when Pohland can stop showboating long enough to tell the story, a short scene hits hard. On one of his first dates with Melinda, Wilson describes being spanked by his father, pounding his fist into his palm and screaming, as if someone were being killed. “My dad,” he says, “was a hard guy to please.” The moment shows the hell Brian endured as a child, and it’s also one of the few times where Wilson isn’t played for laughs. (The audience I was with tittered at almost everything he said, as if Wilson were not mentally damaged, but merely a lovable eccentric.) Another moment, where the older Wilson sits zombie-like at his piano while Landy screams at him, is shockingly blunt. But Pohland pulls away when he should dive in. I guess he's got to keep those good vibes happening.
Cusack never really seems like Brian Wilson, though he’s believable as a frightened man stuck in a hellish situation. As the younger Brian, Dano gives a fair presentation of a young man trying to share his genius with the world before he goes entirely batty. But both Dano and Cusack fall into the same trap that all actors fall into when playing Brian – they portray him as a big crybaby. Do actors not know the difference between "childlike" and "childish"? The other band members are just stick figures, not worth mentioning. Much better is Paul Giamatti, playing Landy with the fervor of a silent screen villain. Giamatti succeeds because Landy’s motives are clear: Wilson was his cash cow and he wasn’t giving him up with a hell of a fight. Less clear is Melinda. Though nicely played by Elizabeth Banks, it’s never quite clear why she would take such a liking to Wilson. As portrayed in this movie, he’s nuts. If he wasn’t wealthy, would she have tried so hard to free him from Landy? Granted, we aren’t supposed to think of her this way; she's the hero of the piece, and Wilson has seemingly flourished as her husband.
Though the movie never drills deeply enough, as if Pohland feared exposing the whole truth about Wilson’s descent (or perhaps feared the wrath of Landy), there are some moments of absolute splendor, especially during the recreations of the ‘Pet Sounds’ era. Dano is fortunate in that he gets to play Wilson at his happiest, and the music, as always, is beautiful. Unfortunately, Pohland gets too cute. A scene near the end where Wilson searches for his childhood home only to see that it’s been razed is as heavy-handed as a high school girl’s memoir. Pohland's worst crime, though, is the turgid bit where the elder Wilson confronts his younger self in his bed. There’s even a small child version of Wilson, and the scene keeps shifting from the kid, to Dano, to Cusack. Child is father to the man, what? The scene is bad enough to negate the good work that came before it. With any luck, the real Brian Wilson fell asleep in the theater before he saw this scene, otherwise he’d run crying back into the care of Dr. Landy.