The making of The Beach Boys’ ground-breaking “Pet Sounds” album in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” necessitated a soul-searching exploration of Brian Wilson’s musical genius. It began with Atticus Ross’ use of score, which aesthetically crossed over into sound design.
“Conceptually what was interesting was what goes on inside Brian’s head and integrating his music with the score so that the lines are always blurred. And I wanted Brian always present—there’s no piece where he’s not somewhere in it,” explained Ross.
But to achieve that, Ross needed all of the music to do the story justice. Fortunately, Wilson handed over his master tapes, a treasure trove consisting not only of the music but also hours of outtakes and Wilson talking to “The Wrecking Crew” studio musicians.
“And every time we’d put something new in, then I would say this opens up a new possibility to move things around a little bit, for something like the black hole, which is over screen black where eventually we see the inside of Brian Wilson’s ear. As it fades up we figured out how best to pan these Atticus Ross stems out within our 7.1 mixing field.”
In addition to incorporating production tracks, Wilson vocal stems, and The Beach Boys instrumental stems, Renbeck had the challenge of making Paul Dano’s voice match closer to Wilson’s (particularly during “You Still Believe in Me”). “It seemed too much like lip syncing if you used too much of Wilson. And yet Dano does not have the range of Wilson, so it was a tricky balancing act [sliding the two together].”
Re-recording mixer Eugene Gearty also did a pass at the sound design and met Ross in the middle. “In hearing his first pass, it was almost too much of a good thing, so we went with more of a stripped down version using the cues from the recordings. But there were many opportunities for collaboration on so many levels, particularly in the mix itself, and hearing the soundscape in 7.1 gave it more emotional intensity.
“What we learned with Brian was how much he modulated from key to key. He was far more complex than The Beatles and mostly like [Igor] Stravinsky in orchestral music where the key changes and key centers change four or five times within a pop tune, which is unheard of. And ‘God Only Knows’ is one of those perfect examples of that. “
And like everyone involved in “Love & Mercy,” we now have greater insight into how Wilson created his legendary music and the personal toll it took on his life.