The Strife of Brian: Beach Boys' Wilson Biopic Has Great Vibrations

Bill Pohlad's 'Love & Mercy' is a smart, sensitive movie that successfully avoids the clichés of the genre.

Musical biopics are a timeworn cinematic genre. Hollywood keeps churning them out – two recent examples being Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” about 1960s pop group The Four Seasons; and “Get on Up,” Tate Taylor’s drama about soul legend James Brown. Both films were box-office flops, attesting to a lurking sense that audiences may have had their fill of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

But in a new musical biopic, the Israeli-American director and screenwriter Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”), who deconstructed and reassembled Bob Dylan’s life in his masterly screenplay for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007), proves once again that he’s capable of injecting new life into the old clichés of the genre. Together with Michael Alan Lerner, Moverman wrote the script for “Love & Mercy,” the new film about the life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson. After being screened twice at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week (July 11 and 13), it will be released across Israel on August 13.

The second film to be directed by Hollywood producer Bill Pohlad (his production credits include “Brokeback Mountain,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Tree of Life”), “Love & Mercy” is an unusual biopic that swings between two axes. First, there is the decision by the young Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) to take a break from The Beach Boys’ touring schedule, in order to write the songs for the album “Pet Sounds” in 1965. Second, there’s the prolonged, nightmarish struggle in the 1980s of the older Wilson (now played by John Cusack) to handle a medical misdiagnosis, following which he becomes addicted to a ruinous combination of psychiatric drugs and is totally dependent on a therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (played by the ever-excellent Paul Giamatti), a charlatan who takes control of his life.

Parallel lines

In contrast to conventional biopics, which depict the course of events in chronological order, from childhood to adulthood, “Love & Mercy” constantly leaps back and forth between past and present. At first, the frequent cuts between Dano and Cusack can be slightly disorienting, but the second half of the film succeeds in harnessing this tactic to create parallel lines between Wilson’s abusive father (who beat him so savagely that Wilson lost his hearing in one ear) and Landy’s sadism.

The Beach Boys’ music also plays an occasional part, but not in the form of complete songs – as is the case in, say, “Jersey Boys.” Here there are only snippets, but they’re enough to make one want to revisit Wilson’s albums (especially “Smile,” the legendary album that was shelved in 1967 but finally completed and released in 2004).

Though most of the characters in the film are men, the ray of light in Wilson’s later life is Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who falls in love with the rock star who has retired from public life, and is determined to extricate him from the deadly regime of his leechlike therapist.

Although the film focuses on the demons that pursued Wilson (now 73) all his life – from his childhood in the shadow of his violent father, to his being wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic – it does not portray him as a victim. This is a smart, gentle biopic, based on a life story that truly beggars belief.

The film is an impressive achievement, not least because Wilson’s tempestuous life could easily provide material for a miniseries (and/or a reality program). After founding The Beach Boys with his two brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine in the early 1960s, Wilson wrote a series of hit songs for the band that redefined American pop and had a profound effect on The Beatles and other groups. Among those songs were “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” one of the most successful rock ballads of all time.

But the phenomenal commercial success only aggravated Wilson’s depression and mental instability. He started to hear voices in his late twenties, became a cocaine addict and finally left the band. He spent the first part of the 1970s mostly in bed, barely able to function or communicate with the outside world. In their desperation at his extreme condition, Wilson’s family eventually turned to Dr. Landy.

However, instead of jumping from one traumatic event to the next, “Love & Mercy” creates a complex persona of an artist who refused to stop creating, even in extreme circumstances. The film draws a connection between Wilson’s mental illness and his rare musical talent and perfectionism, which generated tension with the group’s members but produced such brilliant songs as “Good Vibrations” – as seen in one of the film’s finest scenes.

Dazed and confused

In his most depressed moments – and they are numerous – Wilson confronts the father who savaged him physically and mentally all his life. In an early scene, he plays “God Only Knows” on the piano. His father’s cold, dismissive reaction – he wanted his son to concentrate on writing light pop songs – almost makes him ditch the song.

Although this is only Pohlad’s second film (his first was a little-seen 1990 drama, “Old Explorers”), he displays sensitivity and intelligence that confirm his skill as a director. The casting of Dano and Cusack – two actors who have yet to receive the recognition due them – also proves to be a masterstroke. Whereas Dano projects vulnerability, stubbornness and ambition, Cusack gets to the heart of a tricky part, which requires him to mumble, withdraw into himself and, above all, look dazed and confused most of the time, as a result of the psychiatric drugs he’s being force-fed (in a way that recalls the Sean Penn character in “This Must Be the Place”).

It’s only Landy’s character that suffers from a certain superficiality. He’s presented as a dictator with sadistic tendencies and an unclear motivation. Is he plotting to get his hands on Wilson’s money? Does he believe he is helping cure him? And why does he take control of his patient’s life so obsessively?

Ultimately, though, “Love & Mercy” is a film that will delight Beach Boys fans and has the potential to expose Wilson’s music to a new generation. The focus on the prolonged damage caused by violence in the family succeeds in creating a complex portrait of a genius with a conflicted psyche.

Contrary to the cliché, the film does not draw a connection between abuse and genius. Brian Wilson was probably born with a rare musical gift. The fact that his father abused him did not help that gift emerge – it turned his life into a succession of ordeals and torments. In reality, as in songs, the ability to love is the only antidote to the depths of depression.

“Love & Mercy” screens at Lev Smadar on July 11 at 17:30 P.M. and the Cinematheque on July 13 at 10 P.M.