Bill Pohlad: “Love and Mercy”

Virtually all of us know and recognize any number of hits by the Beach Boys: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and perhaps most of all, “Good Vibrations.”

Somewhat less well known is the name of Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys sound and the band’s enormous success. Say you’ve seen a film about Brian Wilson, and some folks will look at you with a bit of confusion.

Some people, however, will say, “Really? Brian Wilson!?” For not only is Wilson legendary for creating an entirely new approach to music and to recording engineering (especially with the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds), but he is just as legendary – if not more so – for his spectacular descent into drug addiction and mental illness. For those in the know, the prospect of a biopic about Brian Wilson warily calls up the image of a train wreck. Who would want to watch that?

And yet Bill Pohlad’s 2014 film, Love and Mercy, does an amazing job of not delivering a train wreck. It pulls no punches – Wilson’s life wasn’t pretty, and Pohlad makes no effort to pretend that it was.

But the film is enlightening, gripping, absorbing. In flashbacks, we learn about the rise of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s role in pushing the band to true artistry. The “current” story is set in the 1980s. It features the story of Wilson’s romance with Melissa Ledbetter and her role in helping him escape from the clutches of his bizarre and unethical psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. Both portions of the film move seamlessly back and forth; both are riveting.

As we learn about Wilson’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, we see him not as a train wreck but as a human being confronting enormous pain. That he manages to escape that pain is ultimately life-affirming. This is, indeed, a story of redemption and healing, a tale of love and mercy.

Paul Dano is outstanding as the younger Brian Wilson, and John Cusack is equally adept at playing the older Wilson. But my favorite part of the movie is, without a doubt, the closing credit sequence, which features a clip of the real-life Brian Wilson singing his 1988 song, “Love and Mercy.” Finally, you understand where the film gets its title – and after seeing the film, you’re sure to be deeply moved by Wilson’s performance.

To learn more about the film, visit the official website, and to delve even deeper, take a look at the extensive Wikipedia page on the movie.

In the end, there’s no substitute for watching the film or listening to the soundtrack. And if you just can’t get enough of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, give a listen to their seminal album, Pet Sounds.

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Watch:Several great clips from the film are available on YouTube. Start by watching a short featurette about the film. Then watch Paul Dano as the younger Brian Wilson as he first performs “God Only Knows” for his father, then turn to John Cusack as the older Wilson as he composes an impromptu piano riff for Melissa Ledbetter. Take a look at director Bill Pohlad’s discussion of what went into shooting the studio scenes for the Pet Sounds album. Finally, check out ABC World News Tonight’s interview with Brian Wilson and Melissa Ledbetter Wilson about the film.