Love and Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, was made with Wilson’s approval but feels like anything but a safe, genre-conforming biopic. Rendered in bright colors and structured in stream-of-consciousness style, slipping back and forth between timelines, it’s a nearly surreal take on a surreal life, and it’s unflinching about the depths to which Wilson sank. The film actually features two Wilsons: the cherubic Paul Dano as the brilliant but strange 20-something Beach Boy, and the particularly haggard-seeming John Cusack as the middle-aged lost soul.
The younger Wilson stays in California as the rest of his band tours Japan, so as to work on Pet Sounds, the album that would secure the Beach Boys’ status as innovators. The sources of that innovation, as portrayed in the movie, are the sounds in Wilson’s head. There are scenes of him standing alone in rooms as droning noises and snippets of speech—arranged by Nine Inch Nails affiliate Atticus Ross—crowd in on the soundtrack while Dano looks around in wonder. There are other scenes of Wilson commanding the legendary collection of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, urging them along to make the kinds of arrangements that had never been made before. But the source of brilliance is also a source of pain. The music gets better and better, but Dano’s mental illness gets worse, to the point where he’s babbling nonsense to his bandmates during serious meetings and canceling recording sessions because the vibes in the studio don’t agree with him.
This depiction alone would be enough to explain the condition in which the elder Wilson enters the movie: wandering in a car dealership, muttering cryptically to a saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (played with intelligence and patience by Elizabeth Banks). But we soon learn that he’s under the prison-like care of Dr. Eugene Landy, the kind of menacing egomaniac Paul Giamatti was born to play. Whatever Wilson’s problems were in the 60s and 70s, the film makes them seem minor in comparison to the problems he had once Landy entered the picture. The therapist keeps him overmedicated, won’t let him leave the house without permission, and screams at him to make a new album and earn Landy money. Real-life spoiler: Wilson’s alive today and married to Ledbetter, the woman who rescued him.
Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse obviously can’t be compared directly to Wilson, or even to each other. They made different kinds of music, had different problems, and only Wilson lived past 27. But it’s hard to miss the similarities their documentaries have with each other and with Love and Mercy. These individuals were born with innate talent: Wilson’s creativity amazes and irritates his siblings, the opening clip of Amy is of her delivering a stunning rendition of “Happy Birthday” as a teenager, and the early moments of Montage of Heck feature family members talking about what a hyperactively creative kid Cobain was. But domestic trauma also figures heavily into these narratives. Both Cobain and Winehouse were apparently transformed by their parents’ divorce, and all three musicians had daddy issues. Cobain’s father is represented as emotionally distant, Winehouse’s manipulates her, and Wilson’s, as played by Bill Camp, is terrifyingly mean. Music is portrayed as being, in part, a reaction to tumultuous upbringings.