“I’ve always been a sad person.”
For a man given to creating a cluster of pop’s greatest upbeat songs, this is the paradoxical phrase that Brian Wilson has uttered several times in past interviews.
The Beach Boy founder’s life is now the subject of a biopic and while it treads familiar territory of the genre, it’s a faithful exploration of his creative ingenuity and the causes of anxiety and distress, which dismantled his fragile mental health.
Director Bill Pohlad’s film reverts constantly between the prolific period of Wilson’s youth, a time that he started to blow hippies’ minds with the classic album Pet Sounds in the mid-1960s, and around 20 years later when he began to emerge from the clutches of his notorious, so-called psychiatrist Dr Eugene Landy – played by a brilliantly unhinged Paul Giamatti.
We see Wilson’s zenith as a musician, before his descent into decades of mental problems, spliced with his struggle in the 1980s to re-emerge as a functioning person.
One of the film’s achievements is drawing out the limitless nature of Wilson’s approach to songwriting and the creative process. In a refreshing case of showing not telling, we see how nonchalantly he broke basic music theory rules while creating Good Vibrations (about 20 melodies compressed to one four-minute song), along with the haunting pop of I Know There’s An Answer; You Still Believe in Me; and God Only Knows in the Pet Sounds studio sessions. For the latter, Paul Dano as the young Wilson – singing in his own voice without overdubs – manages the miraculous feat of matching the singer’s incredible range, in a scene where he plays the just-written song to his unimpressed father.
Where the film doesn’t pin down completely one of the acute sources of Wilson’s problems throughout his entire life, is the abusive treatment by his father as a child. Although acknowledged as an inadvertent driver behind Wilson’s unrelenting desire to be a better songwriter, his dad Murry was also cruel and often sadistic. His brutal behaviour affected all three Wilson brothers in the Beach Boys, but this is merely a point of reference rather than explored.
What’s also missing from his heyday are important encounters with Paul McCartney; a bizarre occasion where after slapping Elvis Presley on the face having just met him, he was asked by the king to leave; and a jam session with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop that was apparently “too far out” even for those proto punks. For all the saccharine early 1960s hits about surfing, hot rods and California girls, Wilson’s life was far more rock n’ roll and insane than many would imagine. This film never hits that mark.
As the elder Wilson, a broken man trapped in a psychosis and under the psychological control of Dr Landy, John Cusack’s cowed mannerisms are convincing and more affecting for it. Elizabeth Banks, as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who hauled Wilson out of Dr Landy’s toxic grip, and later became his wife and mother to five more children, is given some of the story’s heavy-lifting. Hers is nevertheless a sweet, tender performance.
What the film lacks in intensity, it makes up for in simple, honest illustrations of an incredibly unique talent, a one-off who traded blows with The Beatles to force music into new spheres.
It’s also worth staying during the final credits, for a live performance from Wilson himself of Love & Mercy: It’s probably one of the greatest songs you’ve never heard.
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