I was in a room with Brian Wilson, but he was only half there. The genius behind The Beach Boys, who sat down with John Cusack during a busy day at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, is soft, sweet-faced, endearingly cloudy-headed. But here he seemed to be in two places at once: here, in the room with me, and someplace else, adrift in the vanished memory of a former self.
That’s an appropriate psychic schism given the structure of Bill Pohlad’s Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy,” which is as wily and loose-limbed as the man himself, a dreamy and delirious ode to this troubled conjurer of sound. The film parallels, and then enmeshes, two episodes of Wilson’s life: his meteoric rise in the 1960s, and his post-breakdown fugue state in the 1980s, when he struggled to get out from under the total control of the dubious Dr. Eugene Landy, at a point where Wilson “wanted to find a place where he could get comfortable and safe in his own environment,” as Cusack said.
Wilson was trying to get comfortable in this environment, too. But as we spoke, he rarely matched my gaze, or looked up from the floor. There is a vacant pain in those eyes. Cusack, cross-legged and dragging an electronic cigarette, acted like a protective caretaker for him when our conversation took tougher turns. We skirted, for instance, the subject of Dr. Landy, whose psychological and emotional imprisonment of Wilson did serious damage.
“Brian is his own man, so to speak,” said producer-director Bill Pohlad, who had such a clear vision for this Wilson movie that he decided to direct his first feature in 25 years. “He’s got his own way of being and he’s not incredibly social. He doesn’t like social situations.”
Pohlad told me all of this back at the San Francisco Film Festival, but you see what he means when you meet the man.
“He feels your feelings and intentions and it’s almost like his antenna is so big, he can feel people in an intense way,” said Cusack, who first met Wilson at his home, where he lives happily with his wife, Melinda Ledbetter, and their brood of kids. “You can be talking all you want, but he’s going to listen to what’s coming from your heart.”
Dano said the same thing in a phone interview the day before. “I don’t think he’s built up the layer of skin that most of us do to become adults, to get through all this,” he said. “The first time we met really on a human level, I wanted him to see me and know me. It’s a risk for him to let us make this film. It’s a tough story. He’s still alive and he puts it out there. I knew there were a few things I wouldn’t talk about.”
Cusack, who in the film embodies Wilson’s careworn physicality without any trace of caricature, met Wilson during pre-production, and admitted to me that at the time he “was terrified Brian would see the movie and feel I didn’t capture his spirit.” Between takes, Cusack would listen to find Wilson’s interior life. “Smile” and “Pet Sounds” were his favorites.
The movie was an opportunity for Cusack to “shed my own cynicism,” he said, because “Brian doesn’t really have cynical parts of him. He’s a better person than I am. He lived his life, and we tried to make the movie rise up to him.”
Paul Dano waited several months to meet Wilson, after spending a lot of time honing his pipes and tinkering on the piano, learning to play Beach Boys tunes. “Brian struck me as such an open and honest and sensitive and raw person that I really didn’t want to get ahead of myself or start thinking of physicality quickly,” Dano said. “I wanted to avoid mimicry.” (Eventually, he and Wilson got to play together at the film’s wrap party.)
Dano vanishes in the role of the young Wilson, when the musical prodigy was just starting to dip his toes into the waters of orchestral pop, much to the chagrin of his controlling and abusive father. We see him experimenting with LSD, and hear the turbulent voices buzzing in his head as he slowly stars to fray. Then, we see John Cusack as an older, more haunted Wilson, at a time when he was creatively bereft, and riven by paranoia.
“Everything that Brian went through made him a different person,” said director Pohlad. “Look at him in the ’60s and then in the ’80s. They look like different people.” That’s why Pohlad wanted two actors for the part, and two separate story strands.
Together, Cusack and Dano draw us into Wilson’s inner world with the support of Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the sparky Cadillac saleswoman who steps into his life to save it before marrying him in 1995. She offered the cast and crew a lot of the intimate intel they couldn’t get from Wilson because he’s not keen on talking about his stormy past. Much of the script by writer Oren Moverman, departing from a first draft by Michael A. Lerner, comes from Ledbetter’s own account of things.
“We saw the film as two different songs, or two different voices,” said Cusack, who never interacted with Dano on the set. “We hoped that Paul and I would just harmonize but we had to do it blind. We didn’t want to know what the other one was doing. We each had to sing our own song of Brian.”
Wilson loves the movie and felt the experience was “cathartic” but also “a fright,” he told me. In a rare moment of speaking up in our interview, he added, “John did the movie for me so I didn’t have to. That was a good thing.”
“Love and Mercy” does not pretend to be the whole story of Brian Wilson. It’s more like an album, a fascinating excerpt from the vast collection of lives Wilson has lived. This film comes as close as anything ever will, I think, to touching the man I met.