This week I went to the beautiful Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle’s historic independent filmhouse, for dinner and a movie with friends. The film in question was Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, and within minutes I knew it was going to be one of the best films I’d ever seen. As a lifelong Beach Boys fan, I was aware, of course, of bandleader Brian Wilson’s creative genius and history of drug taking and mental health issues – but the extent to which these are intertwined and the horror of what Wilson went through mentally is mindblowing.
The film opens in a car showroom in the 1980’s. Wilson (played in the 1980s scenes by John Cusack, below) is wandering around the showroom when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeh Banks), an ex-model turned car saleswoman. At first, she does not know who he is, and as they sit quietly together in a car, it becomes clear that Wilson is profoundly sad, quite confused, and above all a lost and gentle soul. After a couple of minutes, Wilson’s pyschotherapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti), appears and with the help of his bodyguard “persuades” him to get out of the car and leave the showroom. But not before Wilson slips Ledbetter a card that reads, “lonely, scared, frightened.” What follows is two hours of intense, heartbreaking and uplifting cinema as the story shifts between 1980’s Wilson and 1960’s Wilson (played by Paul Dano, below).
In 1966 Wilson, burnt out and struggling with the voices and music he’d heard in his head since childhood, decided to stay in California and work on new material while the rest of the band toured Japan.
Together with the highly respected and talented session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, over the next couple of months Wilson recorded the backing tracks to the album Pet Sounds (and follow-on track Good Vibrations) experimenting with layers of sound including bicycle bells, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremin, dog whistles, trains, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs. The film provides a fascinating glimpse into Wilson’s creative genius and life inside the re-imagined recording studio.
But when the band returned from Japan, not all of them were happy with the direction Wilson had taken, and Pet Sounds, now regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, was released to lukewarm sales. Struggling with the voices in his head, drug abuse, and the domination and violence of his father towards him and his brothers and bandmates Carl and Dennis, Wilson forces himself to return to writing the happy-go-lucky surf, sea and sun tracks demanded of him commercially, even installing a sandpit in his living room so that he could sit barefoot at the piano and feel sand on his feet.
The film swings between 1960’s Wilson’s decline into multiple nervous breakdowns, during which time he allegedly spent three years in bed, and 1980’s Wilson’s struggles with Dr. Eugene Landy. In 1975, Landy was hired by Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, to use his intensive 24-hour treatment to tackle Wilson’s drug abuse, weight gain and strange behavior. What follows is heartbreaking and shocking – Landy misdiagnosed Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic, and Wilson paid $430,000 a year for Landy’s unorthodox treatment, which included overmedication, psychological abuse, financial control and virtual imprisonment.
Landy controlled Wilson’s business affairs, relationships and contact with the outside world. Wilson and Ledbetter’s growing relationship, carried out under the threats and constant supervision of Landy and his staff, ultimately leads to Brian’s escape, salvation and return to music, and the two remain happliy married (with five children) to this day.