Brian Wilson’s production masterpiece, “Good Vibrations,” was the apex of his popular success, topping the charts and selling more than a million copies. Released in October 1966, it was a psychedelic harbinger of 1967’s so-called Summer of Love, providing both a sound and a lexicon for nascent hippiedom everywhere.
Much could be – and has been – written about what makes “Good Vibrations” so innovative, but perhaps the most distinctive element is its modular construction. Rather than a through-composed and performed song, “Good Vibrations” is a mosaic, pieced together from months of recording sessions and untold numbers of musical segments that on their own seem quite unrelated to each other. Brian’s genius was in his overarching vision for the track and the workmanship involved in assembling the collage of sounds into a cohesive, compelling, and insanely catchy whole.
It was a new way of recording popular music, and the next evolution was obvious: applying this modular process to an entire album. That was what he attempted with Smile, aborted at the time and only completed under his own name in 2004. With Smile, specific sections of songs would be treated classically in a theme and variations mode, surfacing in slightly altered ways in other songs throughout the album. It was a daunting challenge, and with resistance from certain members of the Beach Boys and from Capitol Records, along with growing paranoia and self-medicating drug use, the project fell apart and was abandoned by its ambitious creator – who slipped gradually into a reclusive life of sporadic musical activity and ultimately an enveloping shroud of fear, pain, and undiagnosed mental illness.
In directing the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad effectively employs Brian’s modular approach. At the highest level, Pohlad slices Brian’s life into segments from the 1960s, where he is enjoying his creative peak with Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and Smile; and the 1980s, where he is under the unethical care of a doctor who after saving his patient’s life is now angling to siphon his fortune. But then Pohlad goes further, dicing his subject’s life into daring – and often scary – cubes that take us inside Brian’s head (at one point through his mostly deaf right ear) to hear the inner voices that plague him to this day; inside the eyes of his girlfriend and eventual second wife, Melinda, as she tries to break the legal and pharmaceutical hold that the doctor has on him; and inside Brian’s bedroom, where a prismatic, 2001: A Space Odyssey-like sequence shows us Brian in triplicate: as a struggling child, a struggling artist, and a struggling survivor, all observing each other lying near-catatonic in bed (where the Brian in the 1970s – a fascinating period alluded to but not covered in the film – spent the better part of three years under the covers, ballooning in weight and occasionally being pushed, and ultimately miscast, on stage with the Beach Boys, with seriocomic consequences).
As a certifiable Brian Wilson nut, I saw the movie three times in its opening week. It has been widely reviewed, and nearly unanimously raved, far and wide. My goal is not to review it as such, but to explore questions it raises for me. Chief among them is this: How is my experience of the movie different from that of a viewer who knows something or nothing about the history of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys? Part of what thrills me about the movie is that it seems to have been created for the choir, the brotherhood, the initiates; there is a distinct lack of context, explication, and connective tissue that would help a Brian novice follow along. I know the background and significance of certain scenes and don’t need Pohlad or the scriptwriters to awkwardly explain them to me (though this does happen from time to time, how else to introduce who Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks are – two names that certainly separate the Brian nuts from the Brian novices).
Without providing spoilers, here are a few examples.
- Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, informs us in nearly every appearance that he was fired by his son. It is never specifically stated that Murry was the band’s manager in their earlier years and Brian, in a rare display of backbone in family matters, dismissed him of his duties because of his meddling and bad vibrations.
- While recording the Pet Sounds vocal tracks, Mike Love complains about the lyrics to a song called “Hang On to Your Ego.” (Mike’s balking at the lyrics and music for Pet Sounds and Smile is both historically accurate and part of the battering Brian’s fragile psyche took during this period.) The actual instrumental track is heard clearly. If someone seeing this movie didn’t already own Pet Sounds and decided to buy it (a win in every respect), that person would not find a song by that title. That’s because Brian relented and allowed Mike to write new lyrics. The song as released is called “I Know There’s an Answer.” That part is not mentioned in the film. (Interestingly, Frank Black of the Pixies recorded a cover of “Hang On to Your Ego” on his first solo album in 1993.)
- The Smile sessions are represented largely through a single sequence involving two songs performed in different contexts: Brian playing “Surf’s Up” by himself at the piano in his house; and “Fire” (also known as “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) in the studio with the Wrecking Crew (the ace session players he employed). Both of these songs are of monumental importance to the Brian story; yet neither are identified by name, nor is their respective significance shown or explained.
- The “Surf’s Up” bit is clearly a recreation of a solo performance that Brian taped for a 1967 CBS TV special about pop music hosted by Leonard Bernstein in the midst of the Smile chaos. In the special, the song was summed up thusly: “There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today's pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today's most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ ... Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, ‘Surf’s Up’ is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future.”
- As for “Fire,” the track is an instrumental that brilliantly uses strings, whistles, and percussion to emulate the sound of a raging inferno. Brian insisted that all the musicians wear plastic fire helmets, and he created a small wood fire in a trash can in the studio to get everyone in the mood. This is recreated faithfully in the movie, except that Brian is shown holding smoldering sticks and running through the studio. What is not mentioned is that while recording “Fire,” a building across the street from the studio actually did catch fire. Brian, in his growing paranoia, believed that he had somehow been responsible for it; thus, this haunted track has become considered “another brick in the wall” of Brian’s ultimate breakdown.
Personally, I do not consider these to be devastating omissions because I can fill in the blanks and connect the dots; in other words, Pohlad is speaking to me in shorthand and I get it because I know the shorthand. The fact that others do not, however, could result in a different, perhaps less pleasing, experience for them.
There are at least two consolations. First of all, viewers should be assured that no matter how strange or confusing or even unrealistic certain scenes might be, this movie is highly factual. As with all movies based in fact, the chronologies are sometimes altered for clarity and more fluid storytelling. For example, the movie portrays Pet Sounds as having been the first album he produced after he retired from the road following his nervous breakdown/anxiety attack aboard an airplane. In reality, that event occurred in December 1964 and he produced three albums from then until Pet Sounds. But aside from such directorial conveniences, there is a high degree of veracity throughout the movie.
The other consolation is that the viewer is supposed to feel disoriented. The constant sudden shifts between the 1960s and 1980s, the disturbing aural collages that simulate the voices Brian hears in his head, the jerkiness of the hand-held cameras, are all a way through which we can empathize with Brian's splintering mental and emotional states. If things might seem confusing for the viewer, be assured they were confusing for Brian as he was living them.
I do have a few quibbles with the movie, things that, again, a Brian nut would notice and take exception to that likely would be uncontested by a Brian novice:
- Aside from chief antagonist Mike Love, the rest of the Beach Boys are not well cast and their lines (those who have them) are hardly worth recording. The actor playing Carl Wilson is too thin and is seen very often holding a beer bottle (he had a problem with alcohol later but it wasn’t a long-lasting situation; his Wiki page doesn’t even include the word “alcohol”). The actor playing Al Jardine is too tall. Dennis Wilson’s lines are about nothing but sex (not far from the truth, but certainly not accurate; by 1970, Dennis had proven himself a talented and sensitive artist in his own right).
- Brian’s first wife, Marilyn, is shown to be young and dippy, which she probably was to an extent, but it’s hardly a fair portrait. Melinda is certainly a stronger personality than Marilyn Wilson, but Marilyn had to live with Brian at his worst, and she deserves more compassion.
- Brian’s drug friends in the movie are dumb, generic stereotypes; his real drug friends were more interesting and accomplished people.
- Mentioned earlier, Tony Asher (Pet Sounds) and Van Dyke Parks (Smile) were Brian’s primary lyricists of the time period. They enjoyed close creative collaborations with Brian and produced excellent work; they deserve more and better attention in the movie.
- There is a scene after Smile is abandoned that shows a fat, stoned, unresponsive Brian sitting by the pool, with Marilyn calling out from inside the house that their baby (Carnie Wilson, though unidentified) just smiled. “Look at her smile,” Marilyn shouts. “She has your smile.” Yes, we get it. Brian has no Smile.
Aside from these minor complaints, though, the cast is extraordinary. Paul Dano is particularly impressive and could well receive an Oscar nod. As the 1960s Brian, he gained 35 pounds, took piano lessons, and does a great job actually playing and singing in the movie. He portrays the ecstasy and agony of Brian’s art and life equally effectively. John Cusack as the 1980s Brian has less of an acting challenge (mainly tics, fatigue, and social awkwardness) but he embodies Brian’s innate warmth and humor in his portrayal, and the way in which he delivers the line where he tells Melinda that he hears voices but didn’t want to tell her because he didn’t want to scare her off (shown in trailers) is very powerful because Cusack shows that Brian is so clearly vulnerable and scared himself. Elizabeth Banks as Melinda is exceptionally good with uncanny facial expressions that respond perfectly to the craziness she witnesses; she also is absolutely gorgeous in every scene. Paul Giamatti as the doctor (as you can tell by now, I don’t wish to honor the character’s one-time existence on this mortal coil by mentioning his name) is spine-tinglingly creepy. One reviewer astutely pointed that that while Murry Wilson and the doctor did not look anything alike in real life, the actors playing them in the movie have a great deal of physical resemblance to each other, emphasizing their dual-villain status.
So to sum up, if you are a Brian nut, the movie is a must-see. If you are a Brian novice, what kind of movie is it for you? As a biopic, it is about as good as the genre produces. You really will learn things about Brian and the Beach Boys, things that two previous TV movies on the band completely and perhaps deliberately got wrong (one was produced by John Stamos, a friend of Mike Love’s, and it’s laughably biased in favor of the man in whose “honor” a thriving Facebook group is named Mike Love Is a Douchebag). If you just plain like the music and want to be entertained, you will be and the music is there in all its glory. If Jurassic World is sold out, and Love & Mercy is the only movie you haven’t seen yet, go ahead. Two hours with Brian Wilson is a lifetime with anyone else. You will be touched by the story of a man who made the music he had to make despite the cost – which was nearly his life.