Picking up good vibrations: Love and Mercy

Bobby pins clipped on piano strings. Propeller noises. For want of a bobby pin, for want of a propeller noise the song coud have fallen. Brian Wilson did these things and more when producing and arranging “Good Vibrations,” the #1 single that became the Beach Boys’ signature song. Even Mike Love liked it.

But “Good Vibrations” also saved their asses. Pet Sounds, the album that was Wilson’s bid to surpass the Beatles and as recently as 1990 still made Paul McCartney cry, was the Beach Boys’ lowest selling long play. Critical acclaim didn’t translate into mega sales, then and now (and even less now). They needed a hit. Love and Mercy, chronicling the recording of Pet Sounds and the late eighties resurrection of Wilson after years of medicated stupor, can’t avoid the conventions of the biopic, and its bifurcated structure exacerbates the problem. Cutting from the young, troubled, Wilson (Paul Dano) to the blank, stammering middle aged one (John Cusack) feels facile, a reinforcement of the triumph-to-tragedy that is the pox on most biopics. I’d like to see a movie about the ignominious mid career point of a fecund artistic imagination, but smushing them together like Love and Mercy does shrivels both halves.

What director Bill Pohlad does make clear in the sixties portion is the degree to which Wilson was already reeling from crystal visions that may have been blips from a diseased mind but when articulated to responsive colleagues and a masterful orchestra translated as wonderful pop songs. I’m not a Beach Boys fan and I appreciated the patience with Love and Mercy shows Wilson, flowering after increasingly harrowing tours, explaining to the musicians known as the Wrecking Crew how to add a harmony here, embellish there. But Pet Sounds, the album that emerged, employed few of the Boys, which led to confrontations between Wilson and Mike Love, the band and one of the movie’s several bete noirs, always on standby whenever his cousin Brian threatens to leave planet earth. So long as Love and Mercy remains as studiobound as Wilson it’s fine; the other moments are cornball, especially when other characters exist to reflect or remind Wilson of his genius. “Phil Spector’s got nothin’ on you,” drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) confides during a timeout smoke behind the studio. We can’t let the Beatles surpass us artistically! Wilson tells brothers Carl and Dennis. Fortunately whenever the script and direction falter cinematographer Robert Yeoman fills the screen with shots of an eerie composure. The most surreal and most normal shows a barefoot Wilson sitting in a drug-induced stupor against the beautiful endless blue of California sky while the camera wavers, bewitched. And that’s what Wilson’s art did: finding the surreal in noises and effects that musicians overlooked. Paul Dano is the other ace. I can’t think of a better fusion of role and this actor, who has previously specialized in whey-faced grotesques who moan a lot. Thanks to a tyrant of a father (Bill Camp), Wilson exists in a state of perpetual adolescence, and his tentativeness about everything except writing music dovetails with Dano’s strengths (his beatific expression when in front of a mic is a tearjerker).

The other well-realized scene is the first, in which a Cadillac salesperson named Melinda Leadbetter finds a pair of sneakers by a floor model and a rumpled dude who looks like John Cusack in the front seat. For almost ten minutes Yeoman’s camera sits in the back seat recording as the older Wilson drops fragments of quiet horror: the drowning of Dennis Wilson, their sadistic father. Thanks to the late Victorian plushness of the late eighties — the era of harlequined sleeves and shoulder pads and crystal planters — Wilson’s new reality looks more frightening and strange (imagine Rip van Winkle awakening in Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s closet). Leadbetter and Wilson start a tentative, genuine romance — they married in the nineties and adopted five children — and Elizabeth Banks plays a good, determined woman without fuss or condescension; it’s the performance most overlooked by reviews I’ve read. Her antagonist is Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist of formidable intensity and intermittent charm who keeps Wilson prisoner by replacing the junk food and pills diet of the seventies with barbequed hamburgers and pills in the new decade. In baggy pants and hair that looks like a Doberman spent time licking it, Paul Giamatti gives his angriest and least ingratiating performance since John Adams (Stephanie Zacharek: “His smile is one of those false, jarring ones, where lips and teeth seem unsure of their respective roles”). The only disappointment is Cusack, so distracting that I counted the beats of his dialogue for every Lloyd Dobler-ism.

Concluding with Wilson’s victorious Grammy performance in 2004 that commemorated the release of the long-gestating Smile, Love and Mercy at its best imagines what the world sounds like to someone who’d rather live in his own head. But I felt the movie at war with its biopic conventions; it wants to be as lovely and unmoored to banal notions about rhythm and image as Wilson’s songs but also tell us what Love really thought about Wilson’s songs. It should clean up come Oscar time.

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