Apparently, it takes two actors to play Brian Wilson, the enigmatic singer-songwriter who co-founded the Beach Boys and who came to represent the sunny California pop sound while battling drug addiction and mental illness.
Director-producer Bill Pohlad’s new film, Love & Mercy, features Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) as the young Wilson of the ’60s who, amid interpersonal turmoil with his controlling father and hit-seeking bandmates, masterminded one of pop music’s greatest works, the 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. (Read review here.)
John Cusack (Say Anything...) is the 1980s man-child version of Wilson who struggled with mental illness and a Svengali-like psychotherapist, the late Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who kept him under control through overmedication and intimidation.
“There was an argument for one person playing it, like a Ryan Gosling who was in-between age-wise and we can age him down. But from the beginning, it was my goal to have it be played by two people,” Pohlad said. “We thought it would be more interesting and more reflective of Brian’s life. A look at Brian in the ’60s and ’80s and today, in a lot of ways, is of very different people.”
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Dano, 30, and Cusack, 48, did not meet each other before shooting or interact during filming. “They had to find their own Brian in an organic way,” Pohlad said.
Love & Mercy interprets Wilson’s life by focusing on these two periods, jumping back and forth between the Beach boy and the beaten man.
Love & Mercy could also be seen as a love story as Cusack’s Wilson meets the Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who helped rescue Wilson from Landy’s dominance and eventually became his second wife and mother to their five adopted children.
But calling Love & Mercy a “biopic” is reductive, in Pohlad’s view.
“The first thing was that I didn’t want it to be a biopic,” said Pohlad. “One of those things you see of so many musical artists or people of amazing lives and the biopic format where you have to tell every beat of a person’s story and you never get a chance to get intimate with that story and get involved.”
Instead, Pohlad, 59, who grew up the son of a billionaire businessman and who studied accounting and economics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, aimed to capture Wilson in a less conventional manner. He rejected Michael Alan Lerner’s original script. Lerner rewrote, and screenwriter Oren Moverman was also brought on to the project. Love & Mercy takes its title from Wilson’s hopeful, genial 1988 single.
“I want them to get a love vibe from the songs,” Wilson said in a phone interview from his Beverly Hills home about his mindset when writing music for public consumption. “I’m proud of that tune. I think it’s a good tune.”
Pohlad, the man who, as a boy, reportedly told his fourth-grade teacher he wanted to be a Hollywood playwright, wrote and directed Old Explorers in 1990, and although the film wasn’t a success, his move into producing has proven lucrative. Pohlad has producing credits on 12 Years a Slave, an Oscar winner for Best Picture in 2014, as well as The Tree of Life and Brokeback Mountain.
Producing Love & Mercy was the plan, too, but Moverman suggested that Pohlad also take over as director.
“I admitted to Brian I was more of a Beatles guy back then, growing up. I appreciated their music, but I wasn’t a huge fan or anything,” Pohlad said. “In college, I got into them a little more. But for some reason, about 15 years ago, I got into Pet Sounds and had this spontaneous reaction for that album.”
The album’s meaning and significance proved unshakable. Pohlad had to make this movie, this way. “I was perfectly keyed-up,” he said.
The goal was twofold: Celebrate the music and bring attention to mental illness.
“To me, Beach Boys music and Brian’s music oftentimes gets pushed into this category of surf music and makes us think of summer — and although a lot of that music had those themes, there’s something else more complicated and hooks us in. It is deeper and more meaningful than a nostalgia thing … and that has to do with the way Brian puts the music together.
“More importantly, Brian is a human being with challenges,” Pohlad said. “He faced his mental issues, and those are things that are around us every day in people we know and people we run into on the street. I would like, maybe, for us to think about that more.”
Wilson, 72, released his new album, No Pier Pressure, in April. The package includes One Kind of Love, a love song for Melinda Wilson heard at the end of the movie. The couple supported Pohlad’s vision.
“They were there through the whole thing,” Pohlad said. “They weren’t literally on the set; it’s a tough thing to give your story over to a filmmaker and kind of trust them to do it. We had these conversations early on, and while we were shooting the movie, we set up a table read for him to make sure he would understand what we were doing. He sat there, and I wasn’t sure if we lost him or if he was still with us. But later, he called with some insightful notes. Not a lot of notes, like three or four, but really insightful comments.”
In addition, Wilson, who plans to record an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll record next, met with both actors. “I hung out with Cusack and Dano and we got to know each other a little bit,” he said. “They were able to capture me on the screen, very much so.”
In conversation Wilson can be unfiltered, given to an abbreviated, monotone delivery. But in discussing Love & Mercy, which he has seen more than once, he sounds an upbeat note.
“I was very happy with some of it, but the parts where I took the bad drugs was difficult for me to watch,” Wilson allows. Conversely, “it took me back to the time I did the Pet Sounds album, and that was a very happy experience.”
There’s an amusing scene in Love & Mercy in which Dano, as a 24-year-old musical savant producing the kitchen-sink of sounds that is Pet Sounds, cries out in a California recording studio: “Do you think we could get a horse in here?”
No, that never happened, he said. But Love & Mercy has had a lasting impact on Wilson:
“I learned I had a lot of courage to keep going on in my life.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.