Brian Wilson. California’s closest thing to a patron saint of music. Troubled, sorrowful, misunderstood, and revered. His story is one easily understood as though it were written in broad strokes: The young man growing up with an abusive father, his brothers as co-sufferers. The rental of instruments and the writing of Surfin’ while his parents were away on vacation. The rise of the California surf sound heralded by his band the Beach Boys. His chart success and the pressures of fame.  His artistic achievement in the masterpiece Pet Sounds, the experimental work of SMiLE, and his ultimate mental breakdown.

What happens after the breakdown is less well known. The years of lying in bed, of legal troubles and internecine squabbling, the abusive mental health “treatments” of Dr. Eugene Landy, and the ultimate rescue from this by the intervention of his brother Carl and future wife Melinda Ledbetter.

The movie Love & Mercy covers these events in Wilson’s life, separating the early part of his career with events spanning the years 1965 to 1969 and then picking up the thread again from 1985 to 1994. Wilson is played in his youth by the impressive Paul Dano who wholly embodies Wilson at his creative peak. The scenes showcasing the creation of Pet Sounds and SMiLE accurately reproduce the process of recording records in the 1960s and effectively document Wilson’s storied creative process; from dozens of multitrack sections spliced together, the intricate use of varied instruments, and delicate layered harmonies. The scenes of the creation of Good Vibrations alone is worth admission.

The movie does gloss over and in many cases seriously downplay the contributions of Wilson’s brothers as well as his writing partners Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks. The film makes it appear as though Wilson worked in a vacuum when in fact he thrived working with others…until Mike Love decided that Brian was too far out for them to make money with his new sounds.

The movie intersperses moments of John Cusack playing the older Wilson struggling to overcome the abuse and mistreatment he was receiving from the man centrally placed to care for him. Overall these moments are less-than-inspiring, showcasing Wilson as deeply troubled but seriously incapable of effecting any changes in his life. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, his future wife, admirably. Her strength and love help him to overcome Dr. Landy’s (Paul Giamatti) manipulation and get him on the road to actual recovery.  However, Wilson never appears to actually get “well.” Only at the end of the film during the credits do we see a the real, stable Brian singing the title song, a beautiful version of his Love & Mercy. 

I loved the movie but I was deeply impressed by the soundtrack. Not only do we hear the famous songs the Beach Boy’s sang, we also hear Wilson’s mental anguish expressed in hallucinatory snatches of their songs. In fact the soundscape of the film is more important in most respects than the visual aspects. There is a moment in the film where the screen turns black and all you can do is listen, sound washes over you.

Listening is essential when it comes to Brian Wilson. Watch the movie then go home and put on a Beach Boys album. You wont regret it.