Word somehow reached him that ‘real’ surfers hated his music. How would anybody know that? Did those ‘real’ wave-riders phone into radio stations to diss his hits; to slag off how trite and trivial they all were? Surfies I knew back then would be far too laid back for that – but maybe the US variety were different. ‘Back then’ was fifty or so years ago now – no internet, no social media. Could it be that pollsters were paid to walk around SoCal beaches to ask surfer types their opinion as they came in from hanging five out on the break? I don’t think so, but somehow he was told that those guys out on their boards all summer long didn’t dig what he was putting out there – and so he went into another one of his funks because of it.
He didn’t surf himself – although he spent a fair amount of time in a sandpit. Only brother Dennis occasionally hit the swells. But it mattered not. At around the time I was entering my teens they were the sound of summer. They sang of hot cars and surfer chicks, but mainly they sang that ‘…the beach was the place to go.’ And I did, summer after summer – here in Tassie when weather permitted, or when I escaped to Mangoland (where it permitted it all the time). But it’s not this early stuff (‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘California Girls’, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’) that had me hooked, but more the tunes coming out around the time I had my first automobile. Can you remember ‘Sloop John B’, ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Then I Kissed Her’, ‘Do It Again’, the iconic ‘Good Vibrations’ and what many, in the know, consider his greatest, ‘God Only Knows’? Later, in my uni years, I kept following him through such albums as ‘Surfs Up’, ‘Holland’ and ‘Sixteen Big Ones’. Although critical successes, he struggled to capture the same commercial profit for those with his band, the Beach Boys, as he did for their isolated singles – the public had moved on.
Sadly, for most of his life, this consummate songsmith, Brian Wilson, was a train wreck of emotion. The movie, ‘Love and Mercy’, tells of his time in the depths of the sandpit – so to speak. It informs us, as well, how he’s come back to us as a survivor – well enough to give the world his performances again. But still, obviously, he’s greatly shaken and stirred. And ironically, he is the only Wilson still standing of the three brothers forming the nucleus of the eternal Beach Boys. They will be forever associated with their Southern Californian musings of what made life so magic and simple before it all went so belly-up with complexity and stress – and perhaps BW contributed to that as well.
It is, as critic Philippa Hawker describes it in her positive take on the movie, a ‘Clever biopic…’ It’s split in two, with Paul Dano playing the younger Brian W as he starts the downward spiral. The second half features John Cusak as the musician at his nadir, following him through his journey back up the slippery slope. At this stage Wilson is in the clutches of his Svengali, Eugene Landy, joyfully and oilily played by Paul Giamatti. Here we follow his attempts, in the eighties, to clumsily woo the woman who will be his ultimate saviour – his now wife, Melinda.
Dano was masterful in bringing the younger version to the screen. He certainly looks the part, unlike Cusack whom, if you’re familiar with the muso-dude, struggles to carry off the role convincingly as there’s no resemblance. Just to emphasise this, the man himself puts in an appearance as the credits roll. But, if you can put all that aside, Cusack, in his aping of Wilson’s mannerisms, goes some way to make that distraction not detract so much as to ruin one’s appreciation of what Brian was up against.
There is much to intrigue with ‘Love and Mercy’ and the way novice director, Bill Pohlad, interweaves the two narratives. As well, he organises it so we go right inside Wilson’s head – both visually and aurally. There is also the joy to be had as we watch the members of the band put together some of their best known music product in the studio. Many of these are mini-symphonies as they try to quench Brian W’s fixation on out-Beatle-ing the Beatles.
Not much screen time is given to his brothers Carl and Dennis, with Mike Love coming out of it as an insensitive tool. More emphasis is placed on the two demons in Brian’s world, Landy and his fruitcake of a father (Bill Camp). Together these two characters well and truly made the remarkable singer/songwriter a blathering wreck, that is, until he meets his own gorgeous, feisty Californian girl, played by Elizabeth Banks.
Thankfully these days he’s back up on stage playing his back catalogue for us, as well as his newer material. But he still so obviously carries the legacy of his trials. At seventy-three we trust he will be around a while longer, for ‘god only knows’, what he created is timeless.
Official trailer for ‘Love and mercy’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGM