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.
“It was a remarkable creative period,” says Cusack, looking at Wilson. “But I would imagine if you’re making something that beautiful and then your family or your band is going, ‘Hey, man, we need hits,’ and you’re out there exploring these new worlds and frontiers – it must have been a hard thing for your heart to take.”
“It was,” Wilson says quietly.
“You told me for a while you didn’t want to talk about it,” says Cusack.
“It brought back screwy memories. I dealt with it.”
At the press conference, Wilson sat quietly at the end of a long table, answering questions, but clearly not savoring the experience. Cusack sat beside him and smiled reassuringly in his direction.
“I love Brian a lot and one of the hardest parts about acting him is you want to protect him and defend him and be there for him,” says Dano. “But I have to give myself over to that pain he was going through.”
For Wilson, music is a place of refuge. The film’s title is taken from a song on his 1988 debut solo album, Brian Wilson, recorded at the height of his troubled years with Landy (played with psychopathic flair by Paul Giamatti). The song “Love and Mercy” is first heard in the film as a melody inspired by a new relationship with his future wife Melinda, who is played by Elizabeth Banks.
“It was a way to escape and get into the music and stay into it,” Wilson says of the recording. “It was a relief to work and not have to be under the auspices of Dr. Landy. It gave me a chance to get away from it all and make an album.”
Cusack adds, “As dark as it was with that period, that is when he met Melinda. So like all of Brian’s music, it’s interwoven. There’s no clear separations or boundaries. It flows like a river.”
Throughout his day at the hotel, Wilson is described repeatedly as a musical genius. Here, Cusack refers to the “genius at the peak of his powers” documented on the classic albums. “I’ll say it, even though he’s right in front of me,” he says, looking at Wilson. “I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”
“First of all, I say, what does ‘genius’ mean?” Wilson asks. “I never knew.”
Cusack thinks for a moment. “There’s, like, quantum people who arrive somewhere and you can’t even see how they got there. You can’t even track it. But you did it. You just have creativity or a mind that’s above. . .”
“So ‘genius’ can mean ‘ability’ then?”
“I think special, special ability,” Cusack explains. “Rarest of the rare abilities.”
Back in the Sixties, Wilson’s abilities were an inspiration to the Beatles, who responded to Pet Sounds with 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just a week ago, during U2’s performance at the Roxy on the nearby Sunset Strip, Bono told of the band’s first trip to Los Angeles and their search for Wilson’s house in Malibu.
U2 didn’t find him, but others do. “Yeah, they look for my voice,” Wilson says with a hint of a smile. “‘Will you sing for me?’ No, I can’t now, I have laryngitis.”