The Curmudgeon: The Two Faces of Brian Wilson

Music Features Brian Wilson
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In Love & Mercy, the new movie biopic about Brian Wilson, the legendary Beach Boy is portrayed by two different actors. Paul Dano plays Wilson as the creative genius of the mid-‘60s, while John Cusack plays Wilson as the psychological wreck of the mid-‘80s.

This gambit doesn’t really work as filmmaking; it constantly pushes us out of our suspended disbelief and makes us too aware of the picture’s artifice. This might have worked if the movie had been as radical and disruptive as something by Jean-Luc Godard or Wong Kar-Wai, but director Bill Pohlad’s take on the older Wilson, despite a few innovations, is pretty standard biopic fare. Couldn’t Pohlad have whipped up some crazy-old-man make-up for Dano?

The device of two actors portraying the same person does work, however, as a kind of music criticism, for the hyperactive Wilson who wrote and produced Beach Boys Today, Summer Days (And Summer Nights), Pet Sounds, Smile and Wild Honey between 1965 and 1967 was a very different person from the overweight recluse who contributed no more than a handful of album tracks between 1978 and 1987. How the one turned into the other is one of the compelling tragedies of rock history.

You might anticipate that the movie would pull off the dramatic scenes of recovering from disability but not the music-nerd scenes of recording Pet Sounds and Smile, but the results defy both halves of those expectations. It’s the Dano scenes in the studio that sparkle with credibility and invention, and the Cusack scenes that sag with predictability and formula.

I’m not the only journalist who has heard fascinating stories from various Beach Boys and associates about Wilson’s working habits in the studio. But it’s still a thrill to see those tales brought to life so convincingly on the screen. Dano—with his pudgy frame, eyebrow-grazing bangs and far-off stare—closely resembles the Wilson of those years, and he radiates the authority that allows a 23-year-old kid to direct a roomful of older guys (and one woman, bassist Carol Kaye) who were some of the best musicians in popular music at the time.

This may seem implausible, but another recent movie, Wrecking Crew, confirms it. This documentary by Denny Tedesco, released in March, focuses on the loosely defined group of musicians who played L.A. studio sessions for everyone from Frank Sinatra and Herb Alpert to Phil Spector and the Mamas & the Papas. Key figures in that band such as Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Glen Campbell, pianist Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco (the filmmaker’s father), bassist Joe Osborne, pianist Larry Knechtel, drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Plas Johnson are interviewed about those days.

One theme that emerges from these conversations is how bored these musicians trained in classical music and jazz were by the three major chords they were often asked to play again and again. But when they worked with Wilson, they were more likely to be bewildered than bored by his arrangements. There’s a famous story of Kaye telling Wilson that one arrangement couldn’t possibly work, because he had two different bassists playing in two different keys. He replied that he could hear it in his head and that it would work when all the pieces fit together. And sure enough it did.

That scene is portrayed in Love & Mercy with wonderful naturalism by Dano and Teresa Cowles (as Kaye). And the story is confirmed by Kaye in Wrecking Crew. It’s further confirmed by the astonishing musical complexity and emotional depth of Pet Sounds.

The hardest thing for a movie or a book about pop culture to get right is the mysterious act of music-making. That’s why so many films and paperbacks focus instead on the melodrama of rise, fall and recovery. That’s a familiar story in sports and politics as well as music, and is easy to deliver for an audience. But what makes Ray Charles’ struggles with drugs or Brian Wilson’s with mental health any different from the problems of the bus driver or office assistant in your neighborhood?

The only thing that distinguishes Charles and Wilson is the ability to create indelible music. How do they do that? That’s what we really want to know, and that’s what very few movies and books tell us. Pohlad does both: He gives us the process of creativity and the celebrity melodrama. It’s no wonder that the first is far more riveting than the latter.

Wrecking Crew also delves into the creative process, but Tedesco is a less skillful filmmaker than Pohlad. The documentary lacks the rhythm and continuity of good storytelling, and is hampered by a lack of footage of the session musicians at the peak of their powers. So you get wonderful clips of the singers lip-syncing their Wrecking Crew-backed hits on TV, but scant footage of the crew itself in action—and almost no contemporaneous interviews. For all its flaws, however, Tedesco has provided an invaluable service of shining a light on these underappreciated musicians, who played such an immense role in pop music, and of getting their stories down on the record before they die.

Pohlad’s fictional film tells the story of Wilson’s interaction with the Wrecking Crew beautifully. We can see this boy wunderkind gaining the trust of these skeptical musicians and then pushing them to explore one idea after another. We can see Dano get a distant look in his eye as if a new sound is blooming in his head and then excitedly describe to the musicians what to do to capture that fleeting inspiration. This is exhilarating footage, for it gives us a taste of what happens in a recording studio when something new and brilliant is being born.

Pohlad also shows us Wilson fending off the nay-saying of his overbearing father Murray and of his alpha-male bandmate Mike Love, before finally crumpling under accumulated pressures. In one of Pohlad’s boldest triumphs, he recreates, with the help of composer/arranger Atticus Ross, Wilson’s auditory hallucinations. The sounds of silverware and plates and a dinner table, for example, grow into a symphony of found sounds as frightening as they are impressive.

This sets up the other half of the picture, which has Cusack as Wilson undergoing 24/7 treatment by Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), the controversial therapist. When Wilson tries to buy a Cadillac from saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), he latches onto her as a possible doorway out of Landy’s prison. The two fall in love and Ledbetter fights against Landy in a way no one in the Beach Boys camp has been willing to.

The story is told from the point of view of Ledbetter, now Mrs. Brian Wilson, and paints her struggle with Landy in black-and-white terms. What’s left out of the account is the reason the other Beach Boys were reluctant to interfere with Landy. The doctor had initially been successful in pulling Wilson out of his drug-soaked, non-functional, homebound depression. Wilson had lost weight, sobered up and begun to make a little bit of music again. So they were reluctant to interfere, even though Landy had taken unfair advantage of his early breakthrough to control every aspect of Wilson’s life to the point of co-writing the singer’s autobiography and co-writing some not very good songs.

Ledbetter deserves all the credit in the world for getting Wilson free of Landy, but we also deserve a more balanced, truthful account of what really happened. Part of that truth is that Wilson was—and is—far more damaged than Cusack’s portrayal would suggest. That was obvious at the film’s screening at South by Southwest when Wilson himself joined the Q&A, but was unable to answer in anything but the clipped, evasive short sentences that have frustrated interviewers (including this one) for decades.

So where does that leave Wilson today? He has just released a new solo album, Pier Pressure. This was originally intended as a Beach Boys project, but the ongoing antagonism with Mike Love turned it into a Brian Wilson album. There are promising signs: Wilson is singing better than he has since the mid-‘70s, and his arrangements are full of surprises. He sets dozens of instrumental and vocal parts in motion, allowing them to diverge and intersect in fascinating ways.

But all this wonderful invention is squandered on lyrics where nothing is at stake. And in Wilson’s greatest songs—from “Surfer Girl” to “’Til I Die,” it seems as if the singer’s whole world hung in the balance.

On the new disc, “Runaway Dancer” wastes a good hook on a nonsensical song about a departed lover who never seems like a real person. “On the Island,” featuring lead vocals by She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel, is a cheesy fantasy about a Caribbean vacation. “The Right Time,” featuring Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks, is a sappy valentine, as is “Saturday Night,” featuring fun.’s Nate Ruess. “Guess You Had To Be There,” a duet with Kacey Musgraves, lacks lyrics half as sharp as anything on Musgraves’ own records.

Much of the fault for this can be assigned to Joe Thomas, Wilson’s co-producer and co-writer. But Wilson bears some responsibility for this too. When I’ve interviewed him, he judges success by record sales and still implausibly hopes he can duplicate the Beach Boys’ early triumphs by returning to that youthful cheerfulness. But as Love & Mercy makes clear, Wilson has suffered too much for too long to ever recapture his youth. He’s convincing only when he’s yearning for something gone forever or tantalizing beyond his grasp.

You can hear that on a few songs from Pier Pressure. When he sings of “This Beautiful Day” on the opening cut, Wilson reverts to the subjunctive, singing wistfully, “If you would only stay, if we could hold onto this feeling.” “If only” is Wilson’s great theme these days, and when he addresses it squarely, we can hear echoes of his genius. When he asks “Whatever Happened” to the favorite places of his youth, his bewilderment at the loss and his ache for their return resonate. When ex-Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine sing “Sail Away” (with musical quotes from “Sloop John B”), they reanimate Wilson’s old dream of the ocean as an escape from his excruciating, landlocked existence.

Tellingly, Wilson is at his most eloquent on the album’s only instrumental, “Half Moon Bay,” with jazz trumpeter Mark Isham dueting with Wilson’s sighing, wordless vowels. The longing in the music, from the sub-basement bass to the shimmering violins and keening steel guitar, is so powerful that you know that great music is still buried somewhere within Brian Wilson. If only someone could help him get it out.

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