Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad, Director (2014)
Brian Wilson owes me. Big time.
In 1979 he cost me The One.
Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.
For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.
Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.
The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.
Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.
Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.
Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.
So the second night–my second night–it was.
The night of the Talent Show.
I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.
I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.
In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.
No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.
Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.
And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.
Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!
I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and, in a crowd of maybe two hundred, I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.
So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?
We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.
All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.
Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.
Guy named Eddie.
He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).
He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.
And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.
Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:
What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.
So when the scarves had been distributed among the faux-faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player (which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went), and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.
Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.
Instead of, say, Endless Summer.
Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me no longer prepared to be generous.
But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.
And, even if I had been somehow ready for that in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”
Everybody else laughed. Including The One.
Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.
Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.
Clap your hands.
Let your body sway.
In time with the music.
Everybody, including The One.
Everybody except me.
In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.
Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.
I could have stood Elvis being mocked.
But the Beach Boys?
No. That was a bridge too far.
“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.
“I Get Around?”
Elvis was one thing.
Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?
Those were my brothers.
I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.
The One noticed.
After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.
And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).
In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.
“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.
Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?
I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.
And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.
You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t. All because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, a record that had come on the radio the summer I got that ’71 Maverick and helped teach me what freedom was, thereby leaving me permanently honor-bound to defend him as best I could even–or especially–in the strangest and most inconvenient of circumstances.
But, of course, she did not stop being The One. Not ever.
Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.
Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One had broken up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, ever so casually, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”
The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.
Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.
The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.
Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.
Too much chance she, now on the rebound, will shoot me down for too little reward, I said (and don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident…I said).
Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.
Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.
The One. Hah!
So that was my version of an ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve that I was wearing and present the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was presenting.
Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.
Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.
So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.
But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.
Which was why the story never really ended.
Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.
Everybody except The One.
The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.
Somebody who could save her.
Or go down with her.
Two weeks to go in Summer.
It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.
Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?
But probably not.
I was running scared by then. And time was short.
Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.
She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?
You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.
You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.
You could say that.
But then I’d have to say this.
I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.
And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.
After which, I’d also have to say something like:
“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”
All of that happens. All of that I just described.
That’s how you know.
So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.
I owe him more.
* * * *
Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.
It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else’s music.
Somebody he had inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the thing is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him…pretty directly.
Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love & Mercy in the theaters for the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, in Bob Marley, in the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.
One could go on.
There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love & Mercy does.
That’s the film’s great achievement.
You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.
When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t up to snuff. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, but the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.
Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.
It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.
That’s how good Love & Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.
So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.
Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.
The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept the main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Yeah, I know how that sounds.
A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?
I’ll get to that.
But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..
I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).
I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds?)
And I know if you put a gun to my head I’ll have to call up my memories of finding freedom behind the wheel of that ’71 Maverick and leave no doubt which side I come down on.
Not the side Love & Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”
Heck, on a given day, I might take this:
…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass. And if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates a bond that defies easy exegisis.
So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally celebrated, in Love & Mercy or elsewhere.
On a given day.
Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.
Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.
So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.
And I know a few things.
Good for me.
But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction/relationship you or I might have to or with them or their art.
Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.
It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.
In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).
As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.
He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”
Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.
You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.
Love & Mercy goes some.
It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally expected because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.
However close they remain to the facts–and Love & Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.
Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar.
The SOUND…and the Story.
Love & Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.
And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”
All of that.
But not just that.
Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like, SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.
Summer…and End of Summer.
He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.
His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:
His second top ten was this…
…Where it’s always the end of October.
Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.
And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanent radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.
Love & Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those of us most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.
There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.
The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.
And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.
As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.
As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?
We live in America.
In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.
And, in America, the Eighties never ended.
Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.
Neither is Summer.
So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.
All he can do is face the worst and live his life.
Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.
Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)
All great for Brian Wilson.
No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.
But that’s not why Love & Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.
It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.
Summer is short.
The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.
So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.
I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.
But, there’s something else Love & Mercy helped me remember.
It helped me remember that he warned me, too.
He warned all of us. And kept insisting the storm could be endured.
Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.
You can’t put a price on that.