Love and Mercy is out in general release now, and is very much worth seeing. It reminds me a little of Get on Up in eschewing the standard approach to pop-star biopic and narrative sequencing. But it is a simpler and generally more accessible story.
It consists of two segments of Brian Wilson’s life, interwoven together. First, the period of his Pet Sounds and SMiLE studio wizardry from late ’65 to early ‘67, when he was left behind in LA to create the sounds of these two legendary albums while the band toured abroad, but also when his mental health issues first began to manifest, culminating in a nervous breakdown following the abandonment of the SMiLE project. Second, the period of his rescue, sometime in the late 80s and early 90s, from the grips of the abusively controlling and over-medicating doctor Eugene Landy, due to the actions of one Melinda Ledbetter, whom Wilson improbably became romantically involved with after purchasing a car at the Cadillac dealership she worked at. The film uses two different actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack (along with two different types of cinematography), to portray Wilson in these two periods and stories.
It works. All the acting performances are remarkable, with Elizabeth Banks’s more subtle one as Melinda Ledbetter even managing to overshadow Paul Giamatti’s truly terrifying portrayal of Eugene Landy. Both stories, even though somewhat predictable, very much hold our attention.
And the scenes of Wilson in the studio are just wonderful—extended, detailed, and yet feeling as natural as can be. If you have anything like the typical fan’s affection for Pet Sounds, and perhaps even if it’s new to you, the scenes of its creation will appropriately convey a feeling of triumph. They’re very effective dramatizations of what, even observed in a more analytic way, is an amazing musical process.
Geoffrey O’Brien, in his very wise and innovatively-written book on popular music Sonata for Jukebox, says that the strange thing about Wilson’s comeback in the late nineties and early aughts was that it felt like “Everything else had been an interlude, an unusually protracted intermission now consigned to oblivion.” Basic to the architecture of Love and Mercy is just such a sense of an essentially irrelevant interlude, the late 60s to early 90s period in which Wilson had descended into addiction, obesity, madness, extreme reclusiveness, and then enslavement by Landy (but also, let us note, a period in which he remained involved with a whole slew of Beach Boys developments and records, and in which his daughters were growing up with him and his first wife). The film consists of Brian played by Dano entering “the tunnel,” and of him played by Cusack being enabled to take the decisive steps out of it.
Every Wilson fan has read something about the darkness within the depths of that tunnel, in which a set of sicknesses that seemed to engulf the whole counter-culture blended into his own struggle with mental illness. Here is O’Brien’s recounting of some of the sordid details, and his own reactions to them:
…Brian became a Beckett character, mired in filth and at times nearly catatonic. What survived was the compulsion to ingest anything that came to hand: booze, dope, Big Macs, cigarettes, coffee in forty-cup urns. …Madness is the least interesting of conditions. We already knew that. Grinding boredom is its essence. …This was not a life destined to become an Oliver Stone movie. It forced prolonged contemplation of the least photogenic side of 60s excess…
With tasteful respect that the moviegoer can be thankful for, if perhaps also with a bit of denial, all of that is excluded from Love and Mercy, while still alluded to by a few lines.
To the public mind, the “return” of Brian Wilson and his re-emergence into mental health, which the film shows us began in the early 90s, is particularly symbolized by the re-emergence of SMiLE, first with its public performance in 2004, and in 2011, with the release of The SMiLE Sessions. The latter was an attempt to get, under Wilson’s partial supervision, as close to possible to his original vision for the album using the extensive material recorded for it back in 66’ and ‘67. It has been very highly praised, and this Pitchfork review will give you the basic story behind it.
An idea seems to have developed, which the film could be read as endorsing, that SMiLE is one of the master keys to Brian’s life-story, because his having to put it aside was central to his tailspin, and his return to it was a central sign of his recovery. And this is connected to the idea that SMiLE is Wilson’s greatest masterpiece, or at least, one of comparable genius with Pet Sounds. We certainly know that at the time, Wilson regarded its music as moving well-beyond that of anything he had previously done.
“Do You Like Worms?”
But as I argued in “The SMiLE That Wasn’t,” there are strong reasons to regard it as more of an artistic failure than a triumph. Having lived a few more years with the album, I admit I have arrived at a greater degree of fondness for it, but my basic judgment remains that it is quite inferior to Pet Sounds, and that it is, despite its many beautiful moments, the paradigmatic case of “pop-art” or “baroque-rock” ambition pushing beyond what the limitations of the pop music form could handle, besides being too reflective of the hallucinogenic drug-use much of it was composed under.
If you haven’t listened to the album, links to a few songs here–“Heroes and Villains,” “Do You Like Worms?”, and “Vega-tables”–will likely do nothing to convince you that my judgment is wrong, but do note that repeated listens make the initial strangeness of this material much more palatable. This is so much so that it seems possible to me that I could come to someday recant, or radically qualify, my above opinion.
There are three questions about SMiLE, now that we have a picture of what it would have been as a whole, that any fulsome assessment of Wilson’s career and life must address: 1) Was it going to be an artistic triumph, or something less than that? 2) What is most to blame for it failing to be completed, the resistance of Brian’s fellow band members, his deteriorating mental state, his and some of his collaborators’ drug-use, limitations in the technology that kept Brian’s theoretically realizable musical vision from being pulled off in 1966, or deeper flaws in the very conception of the project? 3) Should the Beach Boys have soldiered through to try realize the project despite their reservations and the financial/contractual pressures for a new release, given Brian’s fragility, genius, and attachment to it?
Hard questions all, and so it’s understandable, if disappointing, that Love and Mercy basically dodges them. To the extent it faces 2), it suggests the blame mainly belongs to Mike Love and Brian Wilson’s father. It does this by playing up Love’s dumb and tactless initial opposition to Pet Sounds, and by giving us a scene where we see Brian simultaneously admitting to his domineering father that SMiLE had been shelved and learning that he has unjustly sold off the rights to the earlier Beach Boys’ catalog. This obscures the fact that the resistance to the album and the decision to abandon it—which led to their recycling some of its material into Smiley Smile–came from the entire band. The film doesn’t explain the pressure they were under from the record company, and dodges the toughest question of all: was the project one of such complexity that it would string the increasingly unbounded perfectionism of Brian along for many more months, or worse?
Well, while I invite those who have read the relevant biographies and such to weigh in, there is an internet documentary on the making of SMiLE, told primarily from the perspective of his most sympathetic collaborators, that is fairly helpful. While it suggests too strongly that the drug-use wasn’t that much of a factor(please!), it does convincingly argue that Brian was more together and in command of the music than certain stories have implied. At least, he was until the bands’ reaction was so negative.
My judgment is that the band should have stood by Brian and let him try his best to complete the project. I do think he would have, and The SMiLE Sessions album shows that it surely would have captured a good deal of critical acclaim. (Besides, whatever one might say about its initial inaccessibility, it would not have conveyed a stronger impression of druggy weirdness than the cobbled-together Smiley Smile wound up doing anyhow.) No, it would not have been a widely-selling record, but, so what? Hadn’t Brian earned the right to see his experiment out?
Sure, I’m no Beach Boys expert, so I don’t know the nature of the contractual and financial pressures the band was up against. And my guess is Brian would not have stayed on an even-enough keel through the decadent late-60s and 70s even if the Beach Boys had stood behind him at this point. Still, alas.
Love and Mercy doesn’t leave us in that regretfully longing “Caroline No” mode, but instead implies that the older man’s little-known story of redemption is as important as, and really is the corrective completion of, the young man’s famously sad story of the Ruined Masterpiece and the Lost Music. So–spoiler alert!—in Love and Mercy’s telling, the song most appropriate to the outcome of Brian’s life-story turns out, even after everything, to be “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”
Or considering why it was the very uniquely Brian-suited and merciful Melinda Ledbetter who happened to be working in that dealership, is it really “God Only Knows”?