Jun 29, 2015

Love and Mercy

Even with a happy ending, the story of the emotional travails of Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, is very sad. Wilson is played by two gifted and committed actors: Paul Dano, who plays him in his youth, full of creative exuberance and psychic hurt, and John Cusack, who plays him when he is older, depressed and being manipulated by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, utterly evil and relishing the role). Both Dano and Cusack successfully convey a personality filled with layers of sweetness, eccentricity, wonder, fear, hurt and mental illness, and director Bill Pohlad achieves a believable continuum of character via his two wonderful actors.
The blond, sunny Beach Boys, poster kids for California insouciance, were the product of a deeply unhappy home, with an absent, alocholic mother and a physically and psychologically abusive father (Bill Camp). The extent of this man's monstrous pettiness is summed up in a scene in which young Brian plays him the masterpiece that was to become "God Only Knows", really one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and his father diminishes it in a virtuosic show of undermining.
The movie is structured as a back and forth between Wilson in the early eighties, when he had fallen prey to unscrupulous Dr. Landy, who overprescribed drugs and kept him away from his family, writing himself into Wilson's will, among other abuses, and Wilson at the height of his creative powers, when he came up with the album Pet Sounds, a masterwork that was ahead of its time and was not, like everyone wanted, yet another sunny Beach Boys hit.
The script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner refuses to ascribe clear reasons to Wilson's mental instability. We don't know if he always heard voices, if he heard voices because his father used to smack him hard in the ear, causing him to lose some of his hearing, if his creativity already came with a dose of mental imbalance, or this was caused by the stress of being a misunderstood genius teetering between success and failure, the demands of his own creative ambition and other people's expectations. This, in a way is fine, since life doesn't always offer such neat explanations. Through today's science we now know that creativity and mental illness are sometimes physiologically intertwined and that emotional stress can have traumatic effects on mental health. In Wilson's case, throw in wild early success and an overly sensitive soul and you may well have a recipe for disaster. For another devastating real-life parallel of the damage toxic fathers can cause to their talented, sensitive sons see also the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Cobain's response to parental humiliation manifested itself in violently angry self-destruction which led to suicide, whereas Wilson was too meek a soul for anger. He preferred quiet obliteration through drugs and a three-year stint in bed.  Perhaps it is thanks to this mild disposition that he survived.
Wilson's father and his shrink provide destructive father figures, but the movie is anchored by the calming presence of Melinda Ledbetter (the excellent Elizabeth Banks), who meets Wilson cute at the Cadillac dealership where she works, and they fall in love. She discovers the abuse that the shrink is subjecting Wilson to and, with the poised tact and listening skills of a good car saleswoman, helps Wilson regain his life. Banks deserves awards for this performance, even if the showier and equally deserving roles belong to Dano and Cusack.
Accompanying this story are the cascading melodies of Wilson's genius, which director Bill Pohlad uses in snippets of Wilson's complex arrangements at the recording studio, in which we can hear their rich layers of melody and harmony separately in a sonic metaphor for the painstaking work of creativity. Composer Atticus Ross (Trent Reznor's collaborator for film soundtracks) also created sonic mashups of the noises and music in Wilson's head, which help us listen in amazement to the pristine, beautiful songs that eventually came out of him.

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