Sunday 22 April 2018

Film: The glorious madness of the life of Brian

This fine biopic sheds a light on Brian Wilson's genius

From left: Jake Abel (Mike Love), Graham Rogers (Al Jardine), Brett Davern (Carl Wilson), Kenny Wormald (Dennis Wilson) and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson
From left: Jake Abel (Mike Love), Graham Rogers (Al Jardine), Brett Davern (Carl Wilson), Kenny Wormald (Dennis Wilson) and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson

Paul Whitington

In 1964, on a Beach Boys' tour flight from LA to Houston, Brian Wilson had a panic attack and ended up between the aisles clutching his throat and gasping for breath.

It proved a pivotal moment in his life, because after that he gave up touring and settled down to write something more substantial than the fiendishly clever bubblegum surf songs he'd been pumping out to that point. The result was Pet Sounds, the complex and multi-layered 1966 Beach Boys album that's often cited as the greatest rock record of all time.

It was a game-changing masterpiece, but in Love & Mercy we find out how the triumph of Pet Sounds was a prelude to years of misery and dysfunction. Bill Pohlad's biopic takes a refreshingly non-linear approach, flitting between the 1960s and 80s and using two very different actors to play Wilson in youth, and middle age. Paul Dano is the youthful, fleshy Wilson, who finally emerges from his father's domineering shadow when he goes into the studio to record Pet Sounds.

Love & Mercy lovingly recreates the glorious madness of Wilson's work on Pet Sounds, as he used string quartets, LA's finest session musicians and everything from flutes, harpsichord and Moog synthesisers to beer bottles, bicycle bells and barking dogs to replicate the strange noises he was hearing in his head. All of this goes down like a ton of bricks with the other Beach Boys, particularly his cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), who thinks Pet Sounds will be a commercial flop (he was right about that). But Wilson gets his way, and rewards Love and his brothers by writing the song Good Vibrations straight after: it sold a million copies and became the band's biggest hit.

But all this heroic creation put a terrible strain on Wilson's brittle psyche: he was becoming dangerously paranoid, and would later admit that he'd been hearing voices "since 1963". Attempts to self-medicate with LSD and cocaine compounded his problems, and by 1968 he'd endured stints in a mental hospital and become an obsessive recluse.

Thereafter, his life was invaded by one Eugene Landy, a quack psychotherapist played here with Mephistophelean panache by Paul Giamatti. Landy preyed so successfully on Wilson's emotional vulnerability that by the mid-1980s he's a shuffling wreck.

Which is why car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) thinks twice when Brian comes in to look at a car and asks her out. She's terrified by Landy, but will become Wilson's unlikely champion in a bitter battle for his freedom.

John Cusack has taken hold of the Wilson relay baton by this point, and is better than he's been in a long time playing the confused and frightened pop recluse. Dano is just as good and possibly better as the young Wilson, and what I particularly like about the two actors' approach is that they don't seem to have taken a blind bit of notice of one another.

Dano's portrayal contains elements of impersonation, and it's clear the actor has watched and listened to his subject a lot: he even dares some studio singing, and hits that Beach Boy falsetto perfectly.

Cusack, though, takes the opposite approach, ignoring the actual Wilson and instead giving us a raw and instinctive interpretation of a man in pain. Their performances contrast with each other pleasingly, a vital factor in Love & Mercy's success as Bill Pohlad moves constantly back and forth in time.

Mr Pohlad has primarily worked as a producer to this point, but handles this tricky subject terrifically well. His film has a sense of humour too, and never descends into mawkish misery. And lurking in the wings are Mr Wilson's extraordinary songs, which flit in and out of the soundtrack in tantalising, unfinished flashes.

Love & Mercy

(12A, 121mins)

4 stars

Irish Independent

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