Forget everything you think you know about The Beach Boys because “Love & Mercy,” the new biopic about the brilliant but troubled Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, will shatter most, if not all your assumptions.
Directed by Bill Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” is a non-traditional biopic that simultaneously examines two separate periods in Wilson’s life; one during the mid-to-late ’60s, when the band, at height of their fame (and at Wilson’s insistence) decided to venture outside their comfort zone of surf-inspired music in favor of more psychedelic sounds on what would result in the critically acclaimed album, “Pet Sounds.” The other period shown in the film takes place in the ’80s when Wilson was living in seclusion under the watchful eye of Dr. Eugene Landy. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack both deliver riveting performances as Wilson during these two periods, respectively.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago that Pohlad developed a keen interest in “Pet Sounds” — an interest that he and screenwriter Oren Moverman eventually brought into the rewrite of the script for “Love & Mercy,” restructuring it as a dual-narrative as opposed to the more traditional biopic penned by the script’s original author, Michael A. Lerner.
The transformation of the script into a dual-narrative constructed out of two separate time periods from Wilson’s life effectively liberated Pohlad from the restrictions of a much larger, continuous timeline that is usually characteristic of a more traditional biopic, which, in turn, gave him room to experiment with the styling of the image and sound.
“It wasn’t like a traditional shoot where it’s like ‘Action, cut, do that over again,'” Pohlad told Indiewire during a recent phone interview. “it was more trying to set up an environment.” Though Wilson was not directly involved in the making of the film, helped connect the filmmaker with studio musicians who would be the contemporary equivalent to the The Wrecking Crew (the group of studio musicians who helped created the ’60s sound in L.A.)
“We brought them in, we didn’t do any rehearsing at all, and in fact we didn’t tell them what songs we were going to work on,” Pohlad recalled. “But they’re all accomplished musicians so this is what they would normally do during the session. They [would] come in and the guys would give them the music, then they would be practicing working with the guys and do it. So that’s what we did.”
To prepare for these scenes, Dano studied “The ‘Pet Sounds’ Sessions,” a special 30th anniversary box set release that was released back in 1997 and featured the album’s full original mono mix alongside a full stereo mix and behind-the-scenes audio from the recording sessions. Additionally, Wilson provided Dano and Pohlad with access to unreleased outtakes in which Wilson can be heard giving notes to The Wrecking Crew.
“Paul kind of immersed himself in [the audio], and then we basically just had him walk in to the studio with these musicians and channel Brian, and really have it be spontaneous,” said Pohlad. “We had our cinematographer Bob Yeoman and our 2nd guy in the room [with] two cameras, 16mm cameras, standing in the corner and just shooting it like a documentary. It was those elements that came together and really gave it its magic.”
Since the production had access to Wilson’s library, including outtakes and the original stems from the recording sessions, the audio heard when Dano and the actors playing his bandmates in The Beach Boys are in character and recording a track, features a delicate blend of archival sounds from the ’60s and production sound from the set of the film.
Atticus Ross, the composer on the film, remixed the audio in such a way, said Pohlad, “that [we] ended up with music that
would act as score that was new, but it really was Brian’s music still.” Most of the audio for the recording sessions would begin with Dano singing and then gradually transition into the original recording in order to make it feel authentic. Pohlad estimated that 80% of the score “is actually Brian’s either voice
or instruments or some of his orchestrations reworked.”
You can see “Love & Mercy” in theaters starting today, June 5.