Go see “Love & Mercy” this weekend to learn about genius, pain, and yes, love

Is there any kind of a genius besides a tortured one? Why is it that pain is such an essential element of human growth and development and yet, well, so painful?

Maybe that’s asking the question the wrong way. In “Love & Mercy,” the new film about Brian Wilson’s towering musical accomplishments and his even larger personal demons, the Beach Boy, played young by Paul Dano and middle-aged by John Cusack, is trapped by the facts of his life, and yet activated by them, too.

Actor John Cusack (L), musician Brian Wilson, and actor Paul Dano (R) pose as they arrive for the "Love & Mercy" gala at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The three Brian Wilsons (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

It’s hard to imagine the young Brian, played by Dano, coming up with the “Pet Sounds” album without having circumstances to push against, namely, his abusive father Murry, his episodic panic attacks, which leave him unwilling to travel or tour, and even his fellow bandmates, who are also, by the way, his brothers and cousin. Dano as Wilson only seems happy when he’s in the studio or fiddling with a piano. It’s his need to escape torture that drives him towards ecstatic moments of perfection, found while working on music. To call this happiness, however, would be going too far; it’s more like a therapeutic relief.

Despite being surrounded, quite literally, by family, Wilson apparently had no one to turn to for his own mental and drug abuse issues–other than Eugene Landy. The psychologist, who had dreams of stardom, initially saved Wilson’s life, getting him past the aftereffects of LSD and his unhappy childhood. But then he overmedicated, isolated, and took financial advantage of his famous patient. Just as abusive parents simultaneously sustain and shatter their children, Landy’s care for Wilson became a twisted ordeal that robbed Wilson of a decade of life.

“Love & Mercy” is Wilson’s story. The centerpiece is its recreation of the astonishing studio sessions that led to “Pet Sounds.” But it is also about good relationships that go bad. The California surf tunes that Wilson’s father pushed the band to record eventually became a sticking point in the relationship. Wilson tried to the take the Beach Boys in a daring new direction–Dad wanted to simply double down on surf rock that sold big–and control his son’s creativity in the process. Dad loses the battle, but Landy almost wins the war.

It’s easy to forget–or not know– that at one point in time the Beach Boys, known to younger audiences today, if at all, as a nostalgia surf act, were the envy of The Beatles. The bands were in a back-and-forth competition to break new musical ground with every single. It was a high-wire act with high artistic stakes–imagine your foil being Paul McCartney–and yet Murry just wanted more beach blanket bingo. It’s ironic that the far-out sounds Wilson pioneered have become the modern listener’s definition of enduring, timeless California surf rock, while the early Beach Boys tunes, written while Murry managed the band, though they are still beloved, sound like part of a very specific, dated musical epoch.

 In the movie, even when his father is not there, he manifests as one of the voices in Wilson’s head, the ones that question his intelligence, sanity, abilities and creativity. As Wilson broke away from his father, the other Beach Boys grew confused about his creative process, and their roles in it. Wilson the composer created iconic songs, with total control over the output of session musicians, in the secure environment of a recording studio. Wilson the band member had almost no idea how to connect with or explain his desired outcome to his brothers or his cousin. In the movie, even when his father is not there, he manifests as one of the voices in Wilson’s head, the ones that question his intelligence, sanity, abilities and creativity.

Wilson the composer wrote lyrics inflected with pain and deep emotion–and also set them to the sounds we now associate with happiness, surf, sun, and easy living. Wilson the band member was an emotional recluse, unable to convey to anyone what he was feeling, or to ask for help, paralyzed.

In the movie, it seems like the sheer force of Wilson’s will is what coerces the other Beach Boys to participate in the “Pet Sounds” recording sessions. The result of his effort is a groundbreaking album, but also, eventually, a band mutiny. The mild, gentle, genius could dream up the music and direct its birthing, but he couldn’t figure out how to collaborate with, and therefore lead, his bandmates to the promised land, all together.

 Landy damaged his patient more with the drugs he prescribed than the ones Wilson recreationally damaged himself with in the 60s. While under Landy’s cruel care, Wilson met Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac salesperson, who became his girlfriend, and eventually worked to free him from Landy’s grip. (It’s worth noting that how much of a role Ledbetter played in real life is unclear.) Landy, during this period, is a surrogate father to Wilson. Except Landy is even more abusive, controlling, and domineering than Murry. According to the doctors who treated Wilson later, Landy damaged his patient more with the drugs he prescribed than the ones Wilson recreationally damaged himself with in the 60s.

Ledbetter told the New York Post, “After I first saw the film, I had to just drive around for a couple of hours to clear my head. Then I remembered that what Landy did to Brian was even worse. You don’t get a sense of it in the movie, but it happened on a daily basis, for years.” What’s amazing, if you’ve seen the movie, is how emotionally devastating Paul Giamatti’s Landy is, and how, in Ledbetter’s memory, his portrayal is only a pale shadow of the real thing.

Ledbetter, played by Elisabeth Banks, helps free Wilson, but also decides to keep her distance and end their relationship. Being part of Wilson’s life took an emotional toll on her, and he was in no condition to be a giving partner after years of being drugged. Further, Ledbetter feared being accused of gold digging Wilson’s fame and fortune, the way Landy did.

After three years out of touch, during which Wilson received treatment from doctors at UCLA, who greatly improved his condition, Ledbetter and Wilson reconnected. The woman who, in the movie, saves his life, then almost kills Wilson, as he steps in front of her Cadillac. In real life, after the events of the movie, Ledbetter becomes Wilson’s wife. All relationships go bad. Until one doesn’t.

Recent documentaries about Chris Farley and Amy Winehouse underscore the importance of a strong support network for those who are talented but coping with pressures they may not even sense, let alone understand, until it’s too late. Due to the mixed commercial success of “Pet Sounds,” most of the people in Wilson’s life dismissed his efforts at “Smile,” the album that was to be his masterpiece in the 60s. He only finished and released it in 2004, when he won a Grammy for one of its songs. It was later revealed though, that the album was largely complete by 1967. But “Smile,” writes critic John Bush, “had few supporters among Brian’s closest friends and family.”

 Maybe the right question to ask about geniuses isn’t why so many are tortured, but how they are able to translate their torments into towering accomplishments. Then there are other geniuses of their professions, like Michael Jordan, cut from his high school basketball team, Albert Einstein, forced into a civil service job, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, another musical genius with an abusive (and alcoholic) father, who overcame his past only to die in a helicopter crash in 1990, right after playing a concert with Eric Clapton. Would any of them have tried as hard, or achieved as much, without the miseries and setbacks that seared into them a desire for personal accomplishment beyond need or reason?

Maybe the right question to ask about geniuses isn’t why so many are tortured, but how they are able to translate their torments–torments we all face, in one way or another–into towering accomplishments. And why, sometimes, again, like all of us, they can’t overcome, and fall prey to their demons instead.

It may be that the pain of Wilson’s youth formed in him the desire to express himself through musical sounds unlike any the world had heard before. But responding to pain can only take you so far; since overcoming his near-imprisonment at Landy’s hands, Wilson has resumed his musical career; he’s on tour this summer, in fact.

It may be that torment is what shaped Brian Wilson, and gave him the ability to become an iconic part of the American musical landscape. He ignored his demons, then he lost himself to them, and then, remarkably, he overcame them. But think of how he did it: The torment may have shaped him, but being treated with humanity is what it took for him to thrive again. It was the love and mercy of other people–one other person–that enabled Wilson to finally be able to put his whole life together, to be both a genius and a human being.

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