Being Brian Wilson: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Wilson on Beach Boy Biopic
Brian Wilson still knows how to seize a musical moment. Earlier today, the Beach Boys maestro sat uncomfortably through a press conference for the new biopic Love & Mercy. Now, the Beverly Hills hotel meeting room is mostly empty, and the 72-year-old is playfully leading an impromptu doo-wop rendition of “Surf’s Up” with the two actors who portray his story of triumph and shattering life struggles.
John Cusack and Paul Dano both lean in as Wilson gently sings the words, snapping his fingers with a smile on his face. It’s a welcome moment of joy and escape for the creator of some of the most innovative recordings of the 1960s, a man whose life and career were interrupted by mental illness, the lingering effects of an abusive father and his band’s loss of creative nerve.
This path makes Love & Mercy, which opens Friday, both a story of great inspiration and a cautionary tale. The film unfolds as two intertwined stories: Dano plays Wilson during his youth and the making of the influential Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile, and Cusack plays the same man in the 1980s, struggling to heal in middle age while the virtual prisoner of radical therapist Eugene Landy.
“A couple of times I dropped by the set to check it out,” says Wilson, now relaxed in an upstairs suite, his hair gray and elegantly combed back. “It was kind of like a shock. Everything was happening.”
Sitting beside Wilson, Cusack turns to the singer: “It had to be eerie, to see us dressed like you.”
Wilson nods. “It was like going back to the past and the present both.”
One of his set visits took place at the original location of Western Studio (now EastWest), where several classic Beach Boys records were made. One of the film’s most uplifting scenes recreates the intense, rule-breaking sessions for Pet Sounds.
“That was a creative period for me,” remembers Wilson. “I made it with Hal [Blaine] and Carol [Kaye] and all the guys in the Wrecking Crew and had a good time making some of the music.”
The album wasn’t a huge hit at the time, despite including the Top 10 single “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but it has grown to be revered as one of the highest points of the Beach Boys’ catalog. The follow-up album was to be Smile, but this was shelved due to Wilson’s deteriorating mental state and the band’s impatience with his elaborate sessions and uncertain commercial prospects. (Wilson finally released a completed Smile as a solo artist in 2004.)
“The band didn’t want to do it,” Wilson says. “I did. I just said, ‘Look guys, I don’t like your attitude. You gotta see it my way.'” They wouldn’t.
In preparation for their shared role in Love & Mercy, Cusack and Dano both independently dove into multi-disc collections of the original Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, listening to fragments and alternate takes that revealed Wilson’s musical processes.