Brian's Song: Love & Mercy 

Charting the music and misery of Brian Wilson

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It was Christmastime 2007. Titans from the worlds of arts and politics had come together for the annual confab known as The Kennedy Center Honors, the highest distinction the United States government bestows on an artist for lifetime achievement. Former honorees, members of the U.S. State Department, Supreme Court justices, the president and first lady were all in attendance to pay tribute to virtuoso pianist Leon Fleisher, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, comedy icon Steve Martin, diva Diana Ross and Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson. When it came time to honor Wilson, things took a decidedly emotional turn as the tribute confirmed what many of us heard as rumors for years: That much of this Beach Boy's life had been mired in emotional quicksand.

"Depression pulled him under," said tribute narrator Art Garfunkel, as photos of a bloated Wilson filled the giant screen. "He fell away from the music and lived in the prison of his days."

It was a devastating discovery to learn that the man who musically pondered, "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?" and assured us, "Don't worry baby," had been trapped in a web where madness and genius intersected. During the tribute, Wilson sat silently in the guest of honor box, alongside President George Bush and fellow honorees, as Lyle Lovett sang a rendition of "God Only Knows" and Darius Rucker got Washington, D.C.'s elite to jump to its feet and sing along to a chorus of "California Girls."

The audience hushed as nine boys from London—each dressed in a white choir robe and none of them older than 10 years of age—walked to center stage.

"Mr. Wilson, we were born a long, long way from your California beaches," said one of the boys. "But the sunlight of your music can be felt every day on our streets in south London."

In exquisite harmony, the young sopranos began to sing "Love and Mercy," a little-known song penned by Wilson in 1988, at the height of his emotional crisis. As the choirboys sang "Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight," the left and right wings of the Kennedy Center stage flew away, revealing an even-larger chorus to accompany the song. In that moment, one of Wilson's pop ditties had become a hymn. Then, right on cue, scores of giant beach balls began slowly floating down from the Kennedy Center rafters as Wilson looked down over a tear-stained audience.

Therein lies the inspiration for a heartbreaking and graceful new film, Love & Mercy, which lays bare the darkest days of Wilson's life and career. Although the film never refers to the 1988 song "Love and Mercy" or its origin, its use as a title for the film is splendid. Ultimately, the movie considers the unrelenting love and mercy that poured from Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks), Wilson's second wife and the woman who saved him, returning the composer to a world that now acknowledges him as an American treasure.

Wilson is played at different stages of his life by Paul Dano and John Cusack (his best work in many years), but it is Banks who shines brightest in Love & Mercy. She is surfing her own creative wave of late: The release of Love & Mercy, which comes to Boise theaters on Friday, June 5, follows on the heels of the major box office success of her debut directorial effort, Pitch Perfect 2.

Love & Mercy is a bit of a stunner in the genre of musical biopics, in that it holds nothing back in its expose of Wilson's abuse at the hands of his tyrannical father (Bill Camp) and a cruel therapist (a chilling Paul Giamatti), whose misdiagnosis of Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic kept a 15-year pharmacological chokehold on the composer.

Rest assured there is also abundant joy in this film as it reveals a deeply satisfying portrait of Wilson's creative process, which birthed some of the most familiar songs in the American songbook: "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Good Vibrations," "I Get Around," "God Only Knows," "Barbara Ann" and many more. Due to Wilson's cooperation with the film, the story makes expert use of original recordings.

Love & Mercy is far from a perfect movie. It is at least 15 minutes too long and audiences expecting a musical romp down memory lane will be disappointed. I, too, longed for the movie to extend some of its musical scenes, but I've watched the film three times now—each time with growing admiration—and I've come to recognize this is a specific story about the quest for good mental health, and that theme should not be compromised or rushed.

To be sure, this film is not a musical with some dramatic elements; rather, it's an intense drama with some wonderful music. A final word of caution: Your own affection for Love & Mercy will most likely be tempered by your appreciation for Brian Wilson's music. As for me, God only knows I loved it.

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Love & Mercy
Rated PG-13 · 120 minutes · 2015
Official Site: www.loveandmercyfilm.com
Director: Bill Pohlad
Producer: Bill Pohlad, Claire Rudnick Polstein, John Wells, Ann Ruark, Jim Lefkowitz and Oren Moverman
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Kenny Wormald, Erin Darke, Brett Davern and Graham Rogers
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