The great and tormented Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, best known for painting The Scream in 1893, had this to say about the role of suffering in art: “Art grows from joy and sorrow. But mostly from sorrow.” For as long as human beings have had culture and self-expression, some of its most vivid and impassioned works of art have been born out of strife, self-hatred, anxiety, and grief. There is a positive angle to this truth, insofar as art gives our pain a voice and a channel for release. Humanity’s ability to creatively funnel its traumas and hardships into art is secretly one of its greatest survival instincts. It is a means of not only coming to terms with our own suffering, but of thoughtfully extending the hard-won lessons of pain to those around us. But, while art is a vital salve for the pain of living, the thornier question is whether pain is a necessary component of great art. The easy answer is, “No, of course not.” There are a great many artists who have looked to their inner joy, to their loving relationships, and to the abundant beauty in the world around them to create sublime works. There can be no debating, however, that human beings do often gravitate to art that comes from negative experiences. Both external hardship and inner turmoil have a way of producing art that is immediate, raw, and revelatory. Speaking only for myself, I know that some of my very favorite films, albums, and literary pieces were only made possible by insecurities, tragedies, addictions, and demons that crippled, damaged, and sometimes even stole the very lives of the artists that made them. These are people whose work has inspired me, consoled me, and stimulated my imagination. Whether we like it or not, when we consume culture, we are often the beneficiaries of someone else’s pain. Would we wish some of history’s masterpieces away if it would assuage the anguish of the women and men who created them or bring a great creative force back to life? Could we selflessly wish away Nevermind and In Utero to ensure that Kurt Cobain lived a life free of chronic pain and depression? Was the fire that fueled Janis Joplin’s addiction part of the same passion that made her one of the greatest singers in all of recorded music? Would I erase Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, quite possibly my very favorite album, if it meant sparing singer Jeff Mangum from the torments that led to his nervous breakdown? Given my genuine love of these artists and the debt my own soul owes them, there seems to be only one decent answer. The question that remains is: what is art without pain? Why is the image of the tortured artist so enduring? These are the thoughts that swam through my head after I watched Love & Mercy, the terrific, tightly focused biography of Beach Boys savant Brian Wilson, whose vulnerabilities and psychological frailties helped him craft the gloriously gorgeous Pet Sounds album, and then shattered him to the point that he almost never created again.
We first meet Brian Wilson in the early 1970s, years after the recording of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. While we are not told the exact date, Brian is nearing the mental breakdown that would see him spend three years as a bed-ridden recluse who only emerged to self-medicate, eat in excess, and shuffle absent-mindedly around his home. He would not emerge into public life again until 1975, when he would enter the care of a domineering psychologist named Eugene Landy. He would emerge much worse for the wear. While allowing Brian to exist outside of his house and occasionally write music, Landy’s inaccurate schizophrenia diagnosis turned Brian into a drug-addled, feeble tatter of his former self. Half of Love & Mercy takes place in the 1980s, when Brian, played with a refreshing timidity and sweetness by John Cusack, met Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac salesperson he would court and eventually marry. In their first meeting, Brian finds himself in a rare moment out of the prying eyes of his bodyguards, his handlers, and Dr. Landy. He asks Melinda, played by a lovely and present Elizabeth Banks, to show him the interior of one of the cars, and then asks her to close the door. With the world shut out however briefly, they share a quiet and human moment as Brian relates the recent drowning death of his brother, Dennis. But, before long, Brian’s mentally stifling entourage shows up to escort him away. Fortunately, their short encounter is enough to plant the seeds of something lasting. Brian buys the car and he and Melinda start dating. The 1980s section of Love & Mercy is about how Brian met Melinda and how Melinda came to see that Brian was being manipulated, bullied, and manhandled by people pretending to represent his best interests. In those bleak years, Dr. Landy made Brian cut off ties with his immediate family and set himself up in Brian’s home, while making Brian live in a room at a separate property. “But I got to choose the room,” Brian sheepishly tells Melinda. With the help of Melinda, his friend Gloria, and some others who are thanked in the final credits, Brian was finally able to emancipate himself from the physical and emotional invasions of Dr. Landy, and eventually record his beautiful, decades-delayed SMiLE album in 2004.
The scenes of the older Brian Wilson are intercut with scenes from 1966, when the Beach Boys were touring as one of America’s best-loved pop acts, behind the success of songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl”. While Brian Wilson wrote these early Beach Boys songs himself, the direction of the group was dominated by the Wilsons’ father, a slick and callous marketing man eager to sell his sons to the public but who never believed the band would have any cultural longevity. The young Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, an actor who has appeared in tremendous films like There Will Be Blood and 12 Years A Slave, and has often had perfectly good work overshadowed by some of the best performances in 21st century cinema. After many years of working hard, Dano finally relaxes and gives the kind of natural, unaffected, and emotionally resonant performance that can be called tremendous itself. When Brian suffers a panic attack coming home from a series of concerts, it gives him the excuse he needs to take a sabbatical from the next leg of the tour. While the rest of the band goes to Japan to play, Brian insists his time will better spent in the studio, where he can prepare new material for them to record when they return. Liberated from the pressures of working with his father and bandmates, Brian finds the mental freedom to take his already impeccable ear for pop melodies in weird and inventive directions and to marry them with songs of longing, self-doubt, and youthful melancholy. Even as a young man, Brian had a childlike frailty. It was the double-edged sword that allowed him to tinge his joyous whimsy with a gentle sadness. It is also the characteristic that made him vulnerable to the slights of those closest to him. When the band returns from Japan, Brian has to defend his idiosyncratic vision, which is conspicuously lacking in the Beach Boys’ quintessential subjects: surfing and summer. In their first attempt at recording the material, Dennis Wilson looks on bewildered as his brother concludes their next presumptive Billboard smash with the refrain, “I want to cry-y-yyyy-yy-yyy-yy-yyyy.” It is a seriously funny moment that also gives the audience a sense of how strange Brian’s approach must have seemed at the time. While Pet Sounds is now regarded as one of the finest albums ever written, it was a commercial disappointment in its day. Brian’s bandmate and cousin, the perennially doubting Mike Love, is all too quick to remind the band that he predicted the album would flop. The film is focused on Brian Wilson, but it’s a nuanced look at the delicacy of any art work that tries to strike out in a new direction. Brian is eventually able to redeem himself from the embarrassment of creating his magnum opus by recording the smash B-side single, “Good Vibrations”, and the film captures both recording sessions in lively, impeccable details. Taken together, the two periods of Brian’s life tell the story of one of rock and roll’s great pioneers, how he was almost ruined by his psychological maladies and the craven manipulation of those willing to use him, and how the care of genuinely empathetic human beings finally helped him to heal.
While the scenes with young Brian Wilson are filmed with the most verve, and naturally contain the most music, the scenes with Cusack and Banks in the 1980s are both the film’s beating heart and its gentle, wounded soul. Love & Mercy is in many ways about the need to find love from others. Brian tells Melinda that Dr. Landy has been having him practice saying “I love you” five times a day, but that he wishes he could regularly say those words to someone else. The older Brian Wilson is a man whose own genius has often forced him into the most darkened recesses of his own mind. This ability to follow his own strange muse as far as it would go gifted him with preternatural confidence as a young man and helped him to craft strangely beautiful tones and off-kilter melodies that pushed the boundaries of rock and roll forward for good and all. However, after a time, the pressure of self-enforced isolation also made him too fragile to function. Brian’s introversion and childlike fragility were the twin muses fueling him to make art that was exhilarating and innocent and disorienting and tender. But, even people who seek solitude cannot survive without feeling they are supported by other people for companionship, for reassurance, and for love. I do not want to oversimplify Brian Wilson’s mental health battle in the name of a nice message. Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown was not a simple matter of human connection. It was the result of very real mental issues, which were only finally alleviated through therapy. At a broader poetic level, however, the film argues that it was not sustainable for a psychologically delicate man like Brian Wilson to go on as the island he so wished to be. It was inevitable that he would eventually need to engage with the world again in order to find his way back to a healthy place. The problem with engaging, however, is that the world is host to parasites and predators and, in seeking out Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson was unlucky enough to entrust his recovery to one of the more unsavory examples of both. The danger of letting a person in to our innermost spaces, be it our minds or our hearts, is that we must still love and trust ourselves enough to know whether that person is acting out of love and friendship or out of a more selfish motivation. Eugene Landy found Brian Wilson when he was most in need of love, mercy, and support. He was supposed to help Brian find the pieces of himself that had been lost with his mental lapse. Instead, Landy installed himself as dictator in the unoccupied head and heart of a wounded human being.
This means that Love & Mercy is not simply a duet between two periods in an artist’s life, but also a duet between the need for community and the need for a space that we call our own. Companionship, guidance, and even love are among the most powerful virtues in the world, but even they can be perverted into weaponry in the wrong hands. Love & Mercy becomes a music biography of uncommon emotional depth because it understands the struggle to maintain a private sense of self. The best scenes in a film full of rich, perceptive moments are those involving the Pet Sounds sessions, when Brian is able to create without the scrutiny and judgment of the Beach Boys; without the white-hot gaze of the family and friends who have nurtured him, but also tamped down his idiosyncrasies into the narrow constraints of a surf rock band. “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian objects. When Brian begins to work on Pet Sounds, the film in turn breaks free from its own constraints: those of the studious, musical biopic. Visibly inspired by Brian’s contagious thirst for new sounds, the film giggles and spins with a chaotic, free-wheeling energy. As an introvert, I know this rush well. It is the rush of being completely alone with a head full of wild, new thoughts, and wanting nothing more than to follow those erratic ideas down whatever meandering path they dart toward. Pet Sounds may have been born partly of Brian Wilson’s past traumas, from his father’s abuses to his crippling anxieties about stardom, but the album really came from a place of great joy and spontaneity. In the studio, with only the company of studio musicians hired to follow his vision and respect his autonomy, we see the full, sweet, exuberant fruition of Brian Wilson. Pain may have been a jumping off point, but Brian Wilson’s masterpiece called for innocence, freedom, a dash of unembarrassed frivolity, some barking dogs, and a whole lot of love. I cannot overstate how perfectly Paul Dano plays the young Brian’s hopeful fragility, while shading it with a meek kind of determination that gathers steam with each scene. The Brian Wilson before Pet Sounds seems like a man who was forced to sing his father’s ideas in the spotlight while having his true voice scolded and shouted down, and the older Brian Wilson we meet in the 1980s has regressed to that same inarticulate haze of low self-regard. If nothing else, Love & Mercy is the story of a time in 1966 when Brian Wilson was able to momentarily assert his artistry and autonomy before receding into a sad fog of silence.
The conflict in the 1980s scenes comes from a real sense of how much Brian has lost, and how dearly we want him to regain not just his sense of self-worth but his music. Brian’s quest to regain his muse is emotionally satisfying not just because we recognize the wonderful songs that play throughout the film. This conflict feels rich because the scenes of Brian Wilson recording are simply the most perfectly alive, loopy, inventive depictions of the musical recording process in recent memory. As a first-time director, some of Brian Poehler’s choices feel like those of an untested filmmaker. But, like Brian Wilson himself, Poehler’s touch is generous, joyful, and beautifully restless when he enters the studio, for both the Pet Sounds sessions and the later recording of “Good Vibrations”. The diverse emotional range of these scenes, from the thrill of limitless creation, to Mike Love’s frustration at having to record those damned cellists for the 35th time, to the impassioned discussions on the studio steps over cigarettes, evoke what might happen if David O. Russell had directed Once. These scenes allow what is mostly a talky film to render its themes and stakes cinematically. That incandescent, unpredictable energy is the life force of Brian Wilson in all its manic glee and obsessive tedium. This is what he found for himself and what was stripped from him by the cruelty of circumstance and the avarice of other people. It is what has been lost and what Melinda Ledbetter must win back for him.
Melinda Ledbetter is where the film’s dueling themes of autonomy and fellowship meet one another and synthesize. As human beings, we cannot flourish in total isolation. We also cannot survive if the gardens of our minds and hearts are overrun with weeds. To quote the title of my favorite vampire movie, we must let the right one in. As weary and emotionally hobbled as we find Brian Wilson in the 1980s, he has the presence of mind to make one very good decision. He recognizes a true and steady soul in Melinda Ledbetter, and he lets her in, even as Eugene Landy subtly tries to scare and shove her away. It finally falls to Melinda to recognize that Brian is too afraid and demoralized to take the next steps toward freeing and rebuilding himself. And here is where the movie could have become problematic. The supportive wife is an evergreen trope in biography films. It typically defines a female character almost solely by her steadfast loyalty to the male protagonist and her ability to help him weather and defeat the internal and external forces working against him. At a first glance, Melinda Ledbetter does fit the standard checklist for Supportive Wife Syndrome. If someone were to accuse the movie of trotting out the hoary old device, I certainly would not call them wrong. And yet, I find myself impotently stammering, “No. It’s not like that.” Partly it’s the quality of Banks’ performance, which is so observant and kind in a slyly active way. Of course, the Supportive Wife is often a kind and attentive listener, so that may not dispel the criticism entirely. And Banks is really very good, but there are plenty of people who think the same of Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, and that character is practically the platonic ideal of the Supportive Wife. Really, beyond the high quality of Banks’ performance, it may be the fact that Melinda Ledbetter just has so much more agency than a supportive female figure typically has in a biography like this. Melinda Ledbetter is an agent for herself as much as she is for Brian Wilson. It’s there in the frank way she pierces through Eugene Landy’s sweaty Svengali exterior, and the way she holds him at bay after he tries to undermine her self-esteem with cruel jibes at her career. It’s in the way she gently but firmly reminds Brian that she is as much an active participant in their courtship as he is and how she seems to be the only person who knows how to speak to Brian without demeaning him or taking over the controls of his fragile, guileless brain. She realizes from the start how easily she could manipulate Brian, just like everyone else, and it is her decision not to that provides the film with the mercy its title promises. That’s not passive support. It’s the most important and unfailingly kind decision in the film, and Elizabeth Banks perfectly conveys that she is the only person in Brian’s entire social universe who is mensch enough to make it. It’s a very important action; more important at the end of the day than the recording of some rock and roll masterpiece. This simple, moral act may have saved Brian Wilson’s life, and it certainly rescued his mind and soul.
In the end, it also seems myopic to criticize the Melinda Ledbetter character for her supportive tendencies because support is really what the film is about at its core. Yes, “supportive” is a dirty word in film, and that dirt has been justifiably earned through years of lazy writing and sexism. But human beings have a very pressing need for support and that achingly tender need for something human is what guides the very best of Brian Wilson’s music. That need is what makes Love & Mercy stretch further than music, further than its own biographical inspiration, and into the kind of simple, universal territory where so many great films live. It is the story of a man with a loving and fragile spirit, and how it took him years to find someone who could love him in a way that would not cause him to break apart. This love is the kind that fills the studios of our souls with new music. It is the kind of love that you want to invite into the back room of your heart to hear some silly new melody and the kind that understands the need to pound away in solitude from time to time. And in those times, it wishes you well and leaves you to fight the good fight for however long it takes. Melinda Ledbetter fell in love with Brian Wilson and she wanted him to be happy and free. Free of manipulation, free of fear, and free of pain. What is art without pain? Art.