‘Brian’s pocket symphony to God’ is how Marilyn, Wilson’s first wife, describes ‘Good Vibrations’ during a celebratory dinner in Bill Pohlad’s superb Love & Mercy.
The Beach Boys’ enormous commercial success was followed by Wilson’s innovative Pet Sounds. But stand-alone single ‘Good Vibrations’ was the song that finally pleased everybody, fusing Wilson’s genius with commercial gold.
It became the band’s first million-seller, selling 230,000 in the first four days of release in the US. But it also marked the beginning of Wilson’s breakdown, his dislocation from a world that always wanted more.
Covering two critical periods in Brian Wilson’s life, the film’s subtext is the conflict between creativity and money, inspiration and greed.
The action flits between the mid-sixties when Wilson’s breakdown was just beginning and the early nineties when, after years of alcoholism and drug-dependency, he’d become trapped by the sinister Dr Eugene Landy (an excellent Paul Giamatti).
In a sense it is hagiography in that everyone is the antagonist to Brian’s genius; his abusive father Murray, his cousin Mike Love, and finally the monstrous Landy, all wanting to live vicariously through Wilson’s talent, yet needing to control and belittle him.
Normally films dealing with iconic musicians become, despite all best intentions, static memorials, but writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner clearly know their stuff.
The band arguments are spot on, as is Wilson wondering in the film’s opening scene where his inspiration comes from, not wanting to think about it, not wanting to jinx it.
And somehow Pohlad manages to give us everything we want from a film about the Beach Boys – the psychedelic sun-soaked West Coast, the creation of a pop masterpiece, the nightmare-tinge that begins to soak into the California dream – without making it feel hackneyed.
Despite the film’s concern with his private life, it is perhaps because it’s driven by an exploration of Wilson’s musical mind rather than a need to show us whether he’s a good person or a fallen idol.
The scenes in the studio where the young Wilson (played seemingly effortlessly by Paul Dano) finds a way to get what is in his head out into the world are amongst the film’s best, and also function as stark contrast to the Landy era, where we find an over-medicated Wilson (John Cusack) curled up into a foetal ball in the studio, cringing and afraid.
The casting is absolutely spot on and for me Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who takes Wilson out of the destructive patterns of his life, unexpectedly steals the show, judging it just right to make the relationship between her and the damaged Wilson completely convincing.
And there is a great sense of rhythm to the film itself. The cutting between the two eras is beautifully handled whilst visually it’s a fantastic period piece of both times, shot without indulgence and with great attention to detail. Visually it kind of hums – like when a note is so perfectly in tune you hear the sympathetic one inside it.
An Academy-Award nominated producer, Pohlad has backed a number of critically acclaimed and artistically interesting projects like The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave and Food, Inc, but his only other directing credit as far as I can tell is for a film called Old Explorers from 1990.
Can’t say I’ve seen it, but twenty-five years on he has created an utterly assured piece of work that could well trouble the awards season if the powers that be can keep it in mind until next year. Perhaps no one took much notice back in the nineties, but they certainly will now.
Love & Mercy is released in UK cinemas on July 10th