THERE’S A FINE and often unclear line that divides the ephemera of pop music and pop culture – with its single-minded drive for popularity and profit – from the timelessness of art. Equally fine is the line that divides what pop culture would label as madness (autism? eccentricity? uniqueness? individuality?) and artistic genius.
“Love and Mercy” is an engaging, wonderfully well acted exploration of the boundaries of this line.
Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson, whose life is the subject of the movie, is one of those grand masters, whose music, breaking free from the straitjacket of the pop music status quo, crossed the line. The movie offers us the clear divide between the Beach Boys (“we just need to follow the formula and get another hit”) and Brain Wilson (blow up the formula. Experiment or die).
We enter into the story just as the fame of the Beach Boys is surging. But Brian wants out of touring and performing and simply wants to retreat to the safe sanctuary of the studio to experiment with sounds and lyrics, with results that perplex and anger his fellow band members
Like the issue of pop v art, the movie is constructed in two interlocked halves.
Paul Dano (“Twelve Years a Slave”, “Prisoners”) is the young Brain Wilson: a shy, soft-spoken musical visionary. He was an introspective, battered kid, emotionally and physically abused by a stern, controlling, unappreciative father (Bill Camp; “Birdman”, “Lincoln”). This is the father who listens to Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and deems it crap.
As an adult, past his peak, past the adulation of Beach Boy fame (an equally compelling John Cusak), he’s equally abused by another father figure -a controlling menacing charlatan, Dr. Eugene Landy (a deliciously, hissably, villainously evil, and always watchable Paul Giamatti in a bad wig).
In biographical terms we might just as well be watching a bio of Michael Jackson with is own abusive father and dubious medical advice.
Director Pohlad and lead writer Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” and the Dylan bio-pic, “I’m not There”) makes it clear that Brian (pardon the pun) is listening to a different beat from that of his brothers. After the disingenuous success of the Beach Boys’ surfer sounds (brilliant harmonies, crooning about a world they never lived), the band just wants more of same (fame and fortune and bubble gum lyrics). But Brian, demonized, by the abuse, which becomes a debilitating aural cacophony, has to use his music not as a pathway to profit, but as an escape route from his head. Like any artist, he has to find a pattern in chaos, a meaning in the madness.
Pohlad brings us into the studio. This is Brain’s world: one cut off from the outside; one where he is absolutely in control and speaking a language – code really – only his studio musicians can understand. Like building blocks of sound, we follow the flow as Wilson’s rich, nuanced music takes shape. The result is a collection (“Pet Sounds”) that was an unique, intimate, musically complex departure from the status quo of simple-minded pop. It’s where, like his reference point, The Beatles, pop became art.
The critics loved it; the adoring public didn’t.
The result, despite the redemption of “Good Vibrations” (always and forever on every Boomer’s play list): three years in bed. For three years, unable to turn the noises in his head into music, Wilson retreated to his bed – a recurring visual motif in the film (the place of sleep, sex and safety)
The older, drug-controlled Wilson that we meet in a Cadillac sales room many years later, unnervingly focused on trying to buy a car, is too ga-ga even for the liberating release of music. Here love, more than music (and maybe director Pohlad is suggesting that love and art have interchangeable values) becomes the escape route. It’s a route mapped by the woman who would become his liberator and the centre of his life. Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”, “Pitch Perfect 2”) is Melinda Ledbetter, his (present) wife. Hers is a more subtle, low-keyed performance which refuses to be upstaged by the hysteria of Cusak’s mind-blown Wilson. She is the uber frau: sexy, caring, brassy and protective.
And like the session musicians in his early years who ‘got’ it, who understood and appreciated the complex musicianship banging around in his head, Melinda intuits how to appreciate and channel the talent, even as she loves the man, hidden somewhere below the fog of drugs.
Love, art, drugs, escapism and madness.
Perhaps art in the end is no more, or no less than a kind of good vibrations’ Star Trek translation device. An app that enables a few gifted souls a means of making the esoteric (the world of private demons and longings) public; and as Kant might suggest, a viewing portal for us mere mortals, into the illuminating intimacy of another mind.
The movie ends, as the credits roll, charmingly on a video of the real Brian Wilson, now a septuagenarian, still performing, happily his latest masterpiece, “Love and Mercy”. It’s lyrics seem entirely apt: “I just wasn’t made for these times”