The connection between genius and madness, pop version

Time for another of my way-late, long-after-it-was-in-theaters, movie reviews.

This morning, in response to an earlier post, our regular Bill quotes Albert Ayler:

Music is the healing force of the universe.

This takes me to the film we watched last night on DVD, “Love and Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson at different stages of his life — in the ’60s, when his mental illness first interfered with his career with the Beach Boys, and in the ’80s, when he began the process of recovery.

I definitely recommend it.

A few points I came away with:

It had never occurred to me before that Cusack and Dano were so much alike. But when Cusack first appeared after several scenes with Dano, I immediately knew he was supposed to be Wilson, only older. I can’t put my finger exactly on what the commonality was — I said to my wife “I never realized before how much they look alike.” But that’s not it. They don’t really look alike. It was something else. Maybe the voice — the lost-child voice Cusack affected for the role. In any case, deftly done.

If you are, like me, fairly ambivalent about the Beach Boys — enjoy their music, but not a huge fan — this film will help you enjoy their work more deeply, especially the “Pet Sounds”-era music. Watching Dano struggle to translate what he was hearing in his head into something others could hear as well, and gradually recognizing the sounds he was picking out on a piano or through some other means, will connect you to his vision on a whole new level. The best pop-music biopics do that, and this one does it better than most. That’s because the music is so central to the character’s central conflicts.

The sounds only he could hear...

The sounds only he could hear…

This was probably the best depiction I’ve ever seen of the fabled connection between creative genius and madness. At one point in the film, Wilson says he started hearing “voices” in 1963. In late ’64, he experienced a terrifying panic attack on an airliner while traveling home from a gig, and persuades the band to tour without him while he stays home and works in the studio. That eventually led to “Pet Sounds,” which was all about getting the sounds in his head out onto tape. Well, that’s not all it was about — he thought the band needed to grow to keep from being left behind by the Beatles. The problem was that he was the only one who thought this — the others, especially Mike Love, wanted to stick to the surf and sand and cars and girls formula. But because he was the only one pushing in a new creative direction, the sound became much more about what only he could hear, as his bandmates and studio musicians looked on in bewilderment and tried to follow along, when they weren’t resisting with all their might.

For a time, this tension led to some great work — before Wilson pulled away from everyone and everything, fell further into drug abuse, lost his wife and family, spent three years in bed and ballooned to 300 pounds — all of which happens off-screen, between the Dano and Cusack periods. That brought therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) into Wilson’s life, which led to Landy taking over his life, overmedicating him and ruling him in a fashion reminiscent of Wilson’s abusive father. Which is where Cusack takes up the story.

To a great extent, the film is about how Melinda Ledbetter, who become’s Wilson’s second wife, manages to involve his family in freeing him from Landy.

Best — and possibly most painful — scene: Dano is tentatively, his voice cracking, playing a demo version of what would become “God Only Knows,” just sitting alone at a piano. At least, you think he’s alone until the camera shows his father seated on a sofa in pajamas and bathrobe. Wilson is seeking his father’s approval for his new direction. The father’s brutal, knife-twisting rejection of the song tells you almost everything you need to know about Brian Wilson’s problems. Later, you learn that his Dad slapped him upside the head so often as a kid that he is 96 percent deaf in his right ear.

Here’s the first part of that scene. If it doesn’t make you appreciate the song more than ever, don’t bother watching the film:

4 thoughts on “The connection between genius and madness, pop version

  1. Norm Ivey

    I saw this on Amazon a few weeks ago. It’s full of painful scenes, but that one with his father is wrenching. It’s really well done and worth the time to watch it.

    Seems like there was an article in Rolling Stone connecting Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) with this movie, but I can’t find a reference to it on IMDB.

    Reply
  2. Bill

    They were caught between the 50’s and 60’s,musically.I had tickets for a show at Township ,but they cancelled due to campus unrest.Books about them go into detail about the hell their father put them through.You might not have this;from a solo album by Carl-the angel of the group

    Reply
    1. Harry Harris

      Thanks for the link, man. It got me into a YouTube K Wilson interlude that lifted my spirit. It even had his solo song “What You do to Me” I can’t find on download sites. I’ve got the Embers version, and it’s good (Wollard, i think), but a notch below.

      Reply

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