Since The Beach Boys broke big on the charts in late 1962, media coverage devoted to them, collectively and individually, has been enormous. And now with the theatrical release of Love And Mercy, a biopic not so much about The Beach Boys as about their once-brightest star, Brian Wilson, the attention has been renewed. At first I was reluctant to add my puny thoughts to all these decades’ worth of Beach Boys coverage. But I’ve maintained a very warm place in my heart for the Boys, and viewing Love And Mercy has inspired me to set my fingers on a keyboard.
The Beach Boys’ history is immensely complicated and convoluted. I’ll summarize what I know fairly briefly: Three of the five original Beach Boys were siblings. From oldest to youngest they were Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson. Add one cousin, Mike Love, and one pal, Al Jardine, and the recipe is complete. Brian, the band’s leader and creative pulse, was a gifted composer and orchestrator whose talents burgeoned, though for only a few years, as the 1960s progressed.
Teen and twenty-something idols, the Boys knocked out hit after hit right from the start (Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA) through 1966 (Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Good Vibrations). But Brian was a victim of mental and emotional demons that caused him to begin losing his grip in 1967 during sessions for the high concept album Smile. Brian guided the band, and many studio musicians, part of the way through Smile, which was meant to be a celebration of earthly and universal creation. But his troubles brought the work to a sputtering end. Unfinished, the album was shelved. At that point, age 24, Brian’s best musical days were behind him. Though he remained a Beach Boy, his songwriting and studio session contributions to the band soon grew fewer, and his appearances with them on stage over the next several decades were sporadic. The Beach Boys soldiered on nonetheless, churning out many albums and nabbing a few more hit singles. And they toured the world (usually sans Brian) over and over.
As started to become public knowledge in the mid 1960s, Brian’s problems hardly were the only painful situations within The Beach Boys. Their story, beyond the music, is a messy one of endless internal conflicts and legal disputes, drug abuse and, ultimately, death. Very sadly, two Beach Boys passed at youngish ages. Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 soon after his 39th birthday. Carl was taken by lung cancer in 1998 when he was 51. Carl many years before had become the band’s chief, taking over from the no-longer-able-to-lead Brian. The band fell apart after Carl’s death.
Hey wait, you say, The Beach Boys are on the road every year, just as always. Well, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston (who had joined the group in 1965) have continued to tour as The Beach Boys. But without any of the Wilson brothers the Love-Johnston unit is hardly the real thing. In 2012, though, Brian (and Al) joined Mike and Bruce for a 50th year reunion tour that went well, only to conclude on a sour note. Love refused to add additional concerts beyond the tail end of the original schedule and in effect booted out Wilson and Jardine. As usual, fun fun fun might have been the image The Beach Boys wished to project, but reality was a whole different ballgame.
Who, then, in 2015 would have expected the release of Love And Mercy? Not me. At first I didn’t want to see the movie. I’ve read more than enough about The Beach Boys over the years, spent many hundreds of hours listening to their music. No offense to the Boys or their legacy, but my limit, or so I thought, had been reached. Until a friend told me that the movie is really really good. And thus my wife Sandy and I found ourselves on a recent Saturday at our favorite suburban art house, the Ambler Theater. There I learned that my friend was correct. Love And Mercy is really really good. Three and a half out of four stars.
Love And Mercy has the feel of truth. And from what I’ve read, its portrayal of events actually is quite true. The acting by the leads is nuanced and impressive. The script is tight, the direction too. There are a few cardboardy plot and dialog lines here and there. The rest, however, is gold. One need not be a Beach Boys freak to enjoy this movie. Sandy isn’t. She doesn’t know much about their musical history or their problems. She found the movie to be what in fact it is, a powerful drama. She agrees with my rating.
As I’ve mentioned, the movie is only partly a full examination of the Beach Boys. Dennis, Carl and Mike are portrayed a good bit, but they aren’t central to the story, and the actor playing Al Jardine is barely on camera. Love And Mercy largely is the tale of Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter, the lady who loved Brian and brought him back from agony’s door and the clutches of manic psychotherapist Eugene Landy (potently depicted by Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s. The main action takes place in two time periods, 1965 through 1967, and 1985 through 1989 or so. The movie jumps back and forth between those eras. Paul Dano portrays the younger Wilson, John Cusack the older. Both are wonderful, as is Elizabeth Banks as Melinda.
A good number of the movie’s sequences with Dano realistically and clearly show Brian’s studio wizardry. The Cusack sections often touchingly shine a light on the developing romance between Wilson and Melinda, whom Brian met in 1985. I think that to tell any more about Love And Mercy wouldn’t be fair. Putting the movie aside, what to me is quite astonishing is that Brian Wilson is above ground and going strong. He has dealt with abusive forces that no decent person deserves to encounter, and has rebounded from low-as-you-can-go points to a most active musical career. He’s on tour right now. With a lot of courage and strength, and with a lot of help, he has survived.