By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2015)
What is it with talented musical families and evil, abusive fathers? When you read about how Joe Jackson mistreated his children as they were growing up, it’s no wonder that Michael (and a couple siblings) ended up as freak shows. Then there’s Murray Wilson, father of Beach Boys Brian, Carl and Dennis. Like Joe, Murray intuited his children’s gifts early on. Undoubtedly, both sensed the potential gold mine . Giving both dads the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they initially guided their children’s careers in the spirit of parental mentoring, but as we know, money is the root of all evil.
It’s possible that genius envy played a role as well. There’s a very revealing scene in Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. The year is 1966, and Brian (Paul Dano) is in the process of working out a song cycle that will soon coalesce into the now-legendary Pet Sounds album. He sits at a piano in front of his father (Bill Camp) and bangs out a rudimentary version of a new song that he’s jazzed about. Even at this early stage, it’s beautiful, inspired, and (with the gift of hindsight) we of course recognize it right away. Murray pisses all over it. No hit potential, dumb lyrics. The title? “God Only Knows”.
History did eventually prove Murray to be an ass, but Brian’s famously complex “issues” actually stemmed from a combination of factors, aside from the open derision from Dear Old Dad. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head eventually led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series). Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most amazing, innovative work of his career.
This particular period (1966-1967) is recreated by Pohlad with uncanny verisimilitude, especially in the “fly on the wall” depictions of the Pet Sounds sessions (these scenes reveal the core essence of the musical creative process like no other film I’ve seen since Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil). Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance is a revelation, capturing the duality of Brian the troubled genius and Brian the sweet man-child to a tee.
If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with Brian’s bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). Landy (played here with full-throttled “don’t you love to hate me?” aplomb by Paul Giamatti) was the therapist/life coach who “treated” Brian for his mental problems by essentially putting him under house arrest (and very heavy medication) for the better part of a decade (and charging his star patient a cool half mil a year for the privilege of his services). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack.
It may require some viewers a little time and patience before accepting Cusack as Brian; especially since he does not bear the same (almost eerie) physical resemblance, but once you do, it won’t be the distraction that you may initially fear it to be. And there is a good reason for that…Cusack has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Also, if you have seen the “real” Brian in interviews, you will appreciate Cusack’s turn all the more; he has really done his observational homework. Like all the best actors do, Cusack has picked up on the essential nuances, more than making up for his relative lack of physical resemblance. His Brian is sweet, touching and heartbreaking all at once.
Elizabeth Banks is wonderful here as well, as Melinda, who meets (latter-day) Brian when he strolls into the Cadillac dealership where she works, then eventually becomes his significant other (she was the first “outsider” to glean that Dr. Landy’s Svengali-like control of Brian’s life was doing him more harm than good). There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I always try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years. The matinee I attended had an audience of approximately five (and it was opening weekend), so I would recommend you rush out to see it before it gets eaten by a dinosaur.