It’s a tough one. How do you do justice and even begin to scratch the surface of a living legend like Brian Wilson? His songs have brought joy to countless millions and numerous generations of music lovers. And yet out of all the joy he gave people, his life was steeped in so much pain and suffering. If anything became all too clear, it was the harsh reality of his life back then, but thankfully not now. At first I didn’t understand the significance of the title (It’s the lead track of one of his albums back in 1988), but the words it hoists up are so perfect in describing his character.
I must say that I was a little skeptical of two actors playing Wilson. For those who don’t know, Paul Dano plays a young Wilson in the ’60s during his creative peak and familial turmoil. Then John Cusack picks his portrayal up in the ’80s when a messed up Wilson is being controlled by his quack psychiatrist Eugene Landi. They seem like two starkly different touch points, displaying two very different actors. Again, how could a director, in this case Bill Pohlad, find cohesion out of this narrative chaos? But it works and ironically, that’s exactly what Brian Wilson did in his lifetime. That’s why he was such a mastermind.
As a young man his father abused him — hounded him to death. He suffered panic attacks, stopped touring, and embarked on some of the greatest musical odysseys anyone could ever hope to imagine. We are thrown headlong into his genius during the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions. It might be a reenactment, but it feels like I am watching an artist at work. He’s on a different level, and it makes me appreciate each one of his songs even more. On a side note, I recently saw the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the famed group of session musicians. And while they brought the skill in their craft, Wilson did truly bring artistic genius that was unique to him. That’s what, in many ways, caused a riff between him and his band mate cousin Mike Love.
We are tossed back and forth from earlier past to later past as Wilson meets cars saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and embarks on a new journey as the manipulative Landi continues to drag him deeper and deeper into hell. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that this is the same Wilson and that is helped by Cusack’s performance. He is jumpy, helpless, muted, almost in a haze. But in him you can see there is an immense vulnerability and capacity for love. That’s what Melinda sees as the layers get peeled back and that’s why it tears her apart seeing Brian suffer so.
As it turns out, Brian Wilson’s mind is not only a place of musical creation, but of fear, pain, and confusion. He was stuck between an antagonistic father and Landi’s manipulating presence. Whether it was the abuse, the drugs, the hallucinations, or a little bit of each, his story is one with a happy ending, and the film plays out that way. Isn’t it fitting that his immortal tune “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” closes the gates on this chapter of his story? It certainly is not over, still going, forever hopeful, and continuing to soar ever higher on a wave of positivity.
His genius astounds and now his resilience amazes me. He finally has found the Love & Mercy he deserved. Thanks you Brian Wilson for gifting us such immortal tunes.