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Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy Paul DanoEarly on in the new Brian Wilson biopic there’s a moment that just about brought me to tears: Paul Dano, playing the young Brian, is seen by himself at an upright piano, hesitantly picking out the chords of “God Only Knows”, as if they’re just occurring to him. Exposed in that way, their unearthly beauty is even more apparent. A glance at the piano arrangement suggests that they include an F#mi6, a Cdim and an A#5-. Brian would have been 23 at the time. Where on earth did he get such ideas?

Love & Mercy can’t tell us that. No one can. But it makes a very good attempt at showing us what it must have been like to be Brian Wilson at two important stages of his career: 1965-66, when he was conceiving Pet Sounds and Smile in the face of scepticism from certain fellow Beach Boys, and the late ’80s, when he met his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, while under the dictatorial control of the therapist Eugene Landy.

I met Brian five years after the first period, when he was virtually silenced and living with his first wife, Marilyn Rovell, in the house on Bellagio Road where he wrote those masterpieces, and then again in the middle of the second, when he and Landy came to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel, where I went to try an conduct an interview.

Notoriously, Brian’s weight has always been an indication of his state of mind. He was seriously overweight the first time (although not close to the 300lb that he would become), and almost skeletal the second. In the Beverly Hills house he was charming and forthcoming, to the point of sitting down at the piano to perform the complete “Heroes and Villains” and his own arrangement of “Shortnin’ Bread”; he also insisted that we listen to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” several times. In London he was practically a zombie, fussed over by the ever-attentive Landy, and it was such a depressing experience that I went away and didn’t write up the meagre results of our conversation.

John Cusack does a good job of portraying that older Wilson, but Dano (above) is exceptional in his ability to convey Brian’s temperament through mannerisms. The director, Bill Pohlad, gets the period details right — the studio scenes with the Wrecking Crew at Gold Star and Western are wonderfully realistic — and loses his way only towards the end, first with an impressionistic attempt to depict the damage that sent Brian deaf in one ear and then with a surrealistic sequence that places him at various ages, from infancy to late middle age, in a white bed in a white room.

Inevitably, the movie’s bad guys are Landy, Murry Wilson and Mike Love. But, as with a lot of real-life bad guys, there is something to be said in mitigation for each of them. Before he turned into a manipulative monster, Landy (who died in 2006) almost certainly saved Brian from the potentially fatal consequences of a pathological overconsumption of drugs and Reddi-Wip cream topping. Brian’s dad was another monster, with a violent temper, but at least he encouraged his three sons’ desire to form a band. And although Love might live to be 100 without getting his head around Van Dyke Parks’s “Over and over the crow flies uncover the cornfield”, he did provide the lyrics to “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations”.

The last time I saw Brian, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, I went with two tickets, an invitation to go backstage after the show, and my daughter, who loves the Beach Boys. It was a thoroughly good example of the latter-day Brian Wilson concert: not as historic as the Pet Sounds and Smile recreations, but spirited, accomplished and deeply enjoyable. Afterwards, having made our way backstage with the idea of saying hello, we found Brian seated at a table, signing things. There was a queue, so we joined it. By the time we got to the front  he seemed exhausted and wasn’t even raising his head to greet his visitors. So we simply thanked him and left.

That little episode made me think about what he had been through to bring us all that marvellous music and about what it had cost him — and was still costing him, to an extent, even though his almost miraculous rebirth seemed to have brought him private satisfaction along with a fresh wave of public acclaim. Love & Mercy is an authorised film, which means that it omits some things and elides others, but in the end it’s worthy of its subject. And if you come out thinking Paul Giamatti made Eugene Landy seem scary, I can tell you that the real thing was a whole lot more terrifying.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Richard, I too found myself queueing up at table to be greeted by Brian after a concert at the RFH, this one after the 2002 Pet Sounds recital. A queue of men – all men – held vinyl copies of Pet Sounds for him to sign but all I had was my concert ticket which I proffered when my turn came. “A pleasure to meet you Mr Wilson sir,” I said, as politely as I could while he signed, using a thick black marker pen. “I was hoping you’d have played ‘Don’t Worry Baby’,” (which he’d played the previous night but didn’t this night) I added. Brian looked at me quizzically and from the expression on his face I knew that I might just as well have asked him to comment on the deteriorating relationship between David Beckham and Alex Ferguson and whether this might impact adversely on Manchester United’s bid to retain the Premiership title for the 2001/2 season. He didn’t reply. “The concert was wonderful,” I said. Still he didn’t reply. Nor did he smile. I guess he was used to compliments. “May I shake your hand?” Brian held up his hand very briefly and touched mine. It was time to move on, as the lady sat next to him indicated by her concerned expression and dismissive hand gesture. As I wandered off it occurred to me that Brian hadn’t been programmed to answer questions like my ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ inquiry, only to accept compliments, and that this kind of spontaneous query was unwelcome. I definitely want to see this film

    July 29, 2015
  2. To promote the very first Brian Wilson solo LP back in 1988 the great man was booked on Art Fein’s Poker Party in L.A. by Bob Merlis of Warner Bros publicity. I was on the panel with Art. Brian was certainly willing but in strange form with a kid named Kevin just out of camera range in case Brian wanted anything like a glass of water or some gum or a toothpick. Every fifteen minutes Kevin was told to ask Brian if he was okay and if he wanted anything. So every fifteen minutes Kevin did just that and the live taping had to start up again.

    It is my understanding this half hour show is now available illegally on the internet. I don’t wish to cheat my pal Art Fein out of any dough but it is worth searching for. And watch it till the end because when the end of the show is announced…well, I will leave it there but keep your eye on Brother Brian.

    July 29, 2015
    • Russ Titelman #

      While we were making the Love and Mercy record I had to deal with Landy and your assessment of how horrible he was is 100% accurate. Giamatti did an excellent job portraying him and how diabolical and obnoxious he was but Paul Dano gets the prize.

      July 29, 2015
  3. John Waltersj #

    I have been a huge Beach Boys fan all my life. I saved up my paper round wages to see them at the Palace Theater, Manchester in 1967. I then travelled down to London to the Festival Hall to witness Brian’s comeback where he played the whole of ” Pet Sounds” wither the magnificent Wondermints. I was in tears the whole evening of course as were many grown men around me. Really looking forward to seeing the film. Not sure about John Cusack as a latter day Brian though !

    July 29, 2015
  4. Richard
    I am delighted to read your article because I have just returned from seeing this movie in the newish Picture House Central which is in the Trocadero Building Piccadilly and certainly is a nice place to go. As it was a biopic I feel sure that it cut a few corners but I would urge anyone who does love Brian Wilson’s music to see it as Paul Dano was wonderful as were all the major parts. I quite liked the surrealistic episode which reminded me of a part of 2001 A space Odyssey but the studio sequences were just terrific.
    As ever thanks for your insight.

    July 29, 2015
  5. Tears jumped out of my eyes when Hal Blaine comes out of the studio to find Brian lying on a car looking at the sky. Blaine tells Brian that despite the Wrecking Crew session gang having worked with the top artists in the whole world, they were still blown away by Brian’s music.
    Yow! You don’t need any more compliments than that.

    July 30, 2015
  6. Rick Hanley #

    Regarding Mike Love’s lyrics:

    Some time in the 1960s, I remember reading a featured reader’s letter in the MM (I think) asking how Brian Wilson could be considered a genius when he wrote lines like “I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations” when Ray Davies could manage “Sunday joint of bread and honey”. This silly comparison and illogical conclusion irked me considerably at the time and for some reason has stayed with me ever since. Liberating, therefore, to learn from this post that Brian Wilson never wrote the words in the first place.

    July 30, 2015
  7. Thank you Richard, an excellent piece, can’t wait to see the film. I’m sad that you didn’t get to say “Hi Brian…remember when…etc” at RFH but Im sure you knew best at that time.

    I was in discussion recently about musical talent giants, and the conversation went along the lines of, ‘all geniuses are flawed!’ If I remember we were talking about John Lennon at the time. But then I never liked John (although loved the band) and certainly never thought of him as a genius. We followed them into them into the Star Club in 63 and the stories of him were the worst!
    However, sorry to have digressed there…loved your piece.
    Best wishes

    July 30, 2015

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