Saturday, June 13, 2015

At the Movies: "Love & Mercy" Delivers Both

In the feature film Love & Mercy, the Beach Boys' meteoric rise to worldwide popularity unwinds in a disturbing spiral of tragedy and survival for Brian Wilson, heart and soul of the band. So where did it all begin? In his room, as the song goes, where a teenage Brian leads his brothers in lyrical harmonies before the idea of their own band catches fire. There was also the stage father who offered his three sons, and possibly their cousin and a friend who joined the group, regular doses of physical and mental abuse, which gave Brian hearing loss in one ear. After the band is well established, dear old Dad is fired as the self-appointed manager, but still shows up at the occasional studio gig to offer his trademark bite. Brian, the artistic genius behind much of the highly acclaimed California sound, is a favorite target.

Paul Dano plays the young Brian with fervent optimism, devotion, and teddy bear charm that's hard to resist. While his bros dig the surfer-themed performances on the road, Brian starts to exhibit early symptoms of a psychosis that renders him awkward in front of audiences and erratic offstage. He convinces himself and rest of the gang that he needs to quit the tour so he can focus on new material. That's when euphoria blossoms and vines its way through the film to rewrite rock 'n' roll history. Wilson's gifts and technical expertise are awe-inspiring to the seasoned musicians who work tirelessly with him. The xylophones, tambourines, piccolos, and strings Brian introduces in the studio infuse fresh new arrangements and unforgettable hits like "Good Vibrations," and the "Pet Sounds" album, considered by many the crowning achievement of a stunning career. These magical productions lay the floorboard of a musical legacy that still resonates today.

But the euphoria is short-lived. By the 80s, the psychosis has gained an upper hand and Brian's gifts morph into madness, with mind-altering street drugs center stage. John Cusack's portrayal of a restrained yet sincere Brian is on the mark as troubling voices derail his iconic life and music. Taken to his bed for three years, Brian is rescued by a manipulative psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landry, played with guts and vinegar by Paul Giamatti. The performance sizzles as evil incarnate, a worthy villain by anyone's standards.

Just when you're thinking wouldn't it be nice to get rid of him, a knight in shining armor appears. She's a blonde, curvaceous car saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter, portrayed by Elizabeth Banks with sweet authenticity to balance her starlet, eye candy appeal. Melinda first meets Brian when he steps inside her Cadillac den. Her attentiveness bubbles into quiet, starstruck awe when she learns that he's Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. But, of course, Landry is never far away. Through the front window of the shiny new Seville where Brian and Melinda sit, he signals his famous prisoner that it's time to run along. As chance would have it, Brian asks Melinda for her number before they part and manages to write three words on the back of her business card, which he leaves on the console: "lonely, scared, frightened." They start dating and before long, Landry threatens Melinda to bug off, or else. But it's too late. Her gentle heart has fallen for Brian's open, innocent heart. She can't abandon him. With steel determination, she digs deep to discover what the evil doctor is up to. When a housekeeper provides the evidence, Melinda tracks down Brian's family and paves the way for his release from the medicated fog and the shrink's shenanigans -- to gain control of his fortune.

Perhaps a weakness of the film is the absence of a finale, with fireworks and wedding bells. But that might have required another feature-length movie. It's the credits that provide closure. Brian returns to what he loves -- writing, producing and performing, and his life today includes wife Melinda and five children. In 2000, Dan and I were fortunate to catch up with him when he staged a solo "Pet Sounds" concert at Atlanta's Chastain Park. We bought three tickets and entertained our niece, Allison, visiting us on a cross-country trek. Unfortunately, a few minutes after the show started, dark clouds burst open and showered us for most of the night. It must've been God's way of saying he approved. As did we and thousands more who hunkered under rain gear and umbrellas until the closing curtain.

You don't want to miss "Love & Mercy." The dark alleyways of Brian Wilson's life are sad and disturbing, but the triumphant boy and man who rise above it all to bless the world with his heart and soul and genius make the movie ride all the more poignant.

Pet Sounds Atlanta 2000