Brian Wilson: The Man Behind Beach Boys Music
By Skip Sheffield
Lucky me, I got to see the Beach Boys in their original lineup, with Brian Wilson onstage playing bass and singing most of the leads. It was one of my first outdoor concerts, in Fort Lauderdale, 1964, at Lockhart Baseball Stadium. The guys wore matching white pants and striped shirts and sang their hits thus far. Little did I know it was the end of an era.
Brian Wilson, principal songwriter, lyricist and visionary of the popular California pop group, quit performing in public soon after. Glen Campbell, then a studio musician, replaced him onstage until Bruce Johnston took over on a semi-permanent basis.
You can learn why Brian Wilson left his family group in the new pseudo-documentary, “Love & Mercy.” If you were never convinced what a towering talent Brian Wilson was and is, this sympathetic take should persuade you.
Directed by Bill Pohlad (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Tree of Life”), “Love & Mercy” was made with the full cooperation of Brian; the only surviving Wilson family Beach Boy, and his second and his current wife, Melinda Ledbetter.
It has often been proposed that great intelligence and fierce creativity can also be accompanied by mental problems. When a mind refuses to shut down it is difficult to sleep or even relax. Solace is often sought in alcohol and drugs to dull the senses. Brian Wilson did it all and was a lost soul for several years until he was “rescued” by an unorthodox psychotherapist named Dr. Eugene Landy. The cure proved worse than the disease. Brian was a virtual prisoner of super-controlling Landy. I hate to call him “doctor,” because he was eventually discredited and barred from practicing.
Landy is played by Paul Giamatti in a silly shag wig. It is a measure of Giamatti’s effectiveness that you just want to give him a slap.
Landy was not the only villain in Brian Wilson’s psycho-drama. First and foremost was his own father Murry, played by Bill Camp. Murry was also abusive and a control freak, and he drove his eldest son Brian relentlessly. Even after the Beach Boys had achieved great success, Murry tried to tell them how to run things; claiming his way was better. The original title of the script was “Heroes and Villains,” which is also a song by Brian Wilson. The two main heroes were Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who became Brian’s second wife, and youngest brother Carl (Brett Davern), who agreed to sue Eugene Landy for custody of his big brother.
Sadly both of Brian’s younger brothers are dead. Drummer Dennis (Kenny Wormald) drowned in a freak boating accident in 1983 at just 39. Brian took his death very hard. Screenwriter Oren Moverman implies the death of Dennis accelerated Brian’s loss of reality. Lead guitarist Carl succumbed to lung cancer in 1998 at age 51. Carl Wilson assumed musical leadership of the group’s onstage performances when Brian withdrew.
Surviving singer Mike Love (Jake Abel) is not an out-and-out villain, but he discouraged Brian’s adventurous, experimental ideas. Al Jardine (Graham Rogers), who is alive and well and still performs as a Beach Boy, basically went along with majority rule.
In the end it is the music that endures. The most curious thing about “Love & Mercy” is that director Pohlad chose two actors to play Brian. Paul Dano is the young Brian and John Cusack is the older self. Dano somewhat resembles young Brian. Cusack does not, though he certainly is a fine actor. Screenwriter Oren Moverman was even more radical with “I’m Not There,” in which six actors of both sexes played another musical icon: Bob Dylan.
This is a minor quibble. Enjoy hits like “Surfer Girl,” “In My Room,” “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations,” but stay until the end to hear the real Brian Wilson sing the haunting title song.