This film is based on the life of Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys. It is in many ways a difficult film to watch as it portrays the hard life that Wilson has lived, enduring his abusive father Murry (played by Bill Camp) who was actually fired as manager of the band, mental illness, drug abuse and a difficult relationship with cousin and fellow band member Mike Love (played by Jake Abel), which continues to this day.
The film, directed by Bill Pohlad, focuses on two specific periods in Wilson’s life, switching back and forth throughout the film. In the mid-1960’s Wilson is a tormented soul, the victim of his father’s abuse (we see him play an early version of his classic “God Only Knows”, for his father, who dismisses it), and decides to stop touring with the band to focus on writing songs and working in the studio. We see his creativity in taking the music that he hears in his head and taking it to develop the songs that would eventually become the band’s 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. Paul Dano, who is made to look like a young Wilson, superbly portrays this young Wilson, who we see begin to use LSD on the way to a mental breakdown. Yet even after the success of “Good Vibrations”, the largest selling Beach Boys single, Wilson still craves his father’s affirmation. I believe Dano’s performance is worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
In the mid-1980’s we see a heavily medicated Wilson played by John Cusack (no effort is made to make him look like Wilson, which is distracting), completely under the control of the evil Dr. Eugene Landy, excellently portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Landy claims to have “saved” Wilson from a life of spending three years in his bed and weighing 300 pounds, but he now controls all aspects of his life, even serving as his legal guardian. The film does include some adult language, including the abuse of God’s and Jesus’ names several times, especially by Dr. Landy. Followed by his handlers, Wilson goes into a Cadillac car dealer and meets Melinda Ledbetter, portrayed by Elizabeth Banks. This meeting will change his life.
The two hour film was quite slow at times, but the acting performances – Dano, Giamatti, Banks and Cusack – are superb. My favorite part of the film was watching Wilson in the studio working with musicians to create the music for Pet Sounds (which Rolling Stone magazine has named the #2 rock album of all-time, second only to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was inspired by Pet Sounds), while the band was on the road touring. However, when the band returns, Love (and Wilson’s father) want him only to recreate duplicates of early Beach Boys hits (surfing, cars and girls), rather than this new music.
Incredibly, Wilson, now 72, has survived and continues to be an important artist, recording and touring (including a July 6 date with fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago). See my review of Wilson’s 2015 album, No Pier Pressure, originally intended to be a Beach Boys album, which gives us glimpses of his genius. A song from the new album – “One Kind of Love” – plays over the closing credits after a video of him playing “Love and Mercy” in concert.