Wouldn't it be nice, Beach Boys fans have thought for years, if they could wake up to find music legend Brian Wilson on the big screen? And how would we feel if instead of the generic rise-and-fall tale, he genuinely tangled with ghosts and a deliciously malevolent doctor? God only knows.
John Cusack and Paul Giamatti make just that music in "Love & Mercy," their tale of the pop tunesmith, directed by the producer-financier William Pohlad and out June 5. In the unconventional biopic, the actor who once held a boom box up to America conjures up the famous Beach Boy, while one of the country's preeminent character actors inhabits Wilson's tormentor, psychologist Eugene Landy, infusing him with a sense of anxious evil.
"The problem was that no one is going to believe a lot of this was for real," Cusack said. "It's so much more bizarre than you could actually show."
"This was not," Giamatti added, "a man who was a whole lot of fun to play."
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As conceived and written by veteran filmmaker Oren Moverman (Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There," most pertinently), the fact-based "Love & Mercy" intercuts two tracks of Wilson's life. In so doing, "Love & Mercy" achieves the improbable: make a music biopic circa 2015 fresh and interesting.
There is, for starters, Paul Dano as a young, pre-"Pet Sounds" Wilson pressing for bold arrangements as fame and family pressure begin to unravel him. And then there's the Cusack and Giamatti section, in which a 1980s-era Wilson is finally pulled out from the influence of Landy by a new girlfriend, the resolute car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Cusack's Wilson appears long after Landy had gone from being a presumptive savior — in real life the singer had at first enlisted Landy to help with his recovery — to a captor. (Wilson and Ledbetter are now married.)
The effect of all this is that of a potent double helix. Audiences simultaneously watch a man making music as he comes undone, and watch him as he tries to put himself back together so he can make music. It's rare, in a music biopic, to witness such subtle bruising, or as unusual and specific a villain as Giamatti's Landy.
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The actors met for lunch on a recent afternoon in New York, Cusack flying in from his native Chicago to see Giamatti, who calls the city home. Mainstays of Hollywood — their combined film credits can fill a lifetime of cinematic memories — the actors didn't know each other before this movie. But they came together over the roles.
"Remember that Diane Sawyer clip I sent you," Cusack nudged Giamatti's shoulder as he reminded him of an interview with Landy.
"That was a total takedown," Giamatti said.
In person, Cusack is more declamatory and Giamatti more tentative, in keeping with their reputations (if also neatly reversing their on-screen personas). The "Say Anything" and "High Fidelity" actor says it was his love for music that motivated him to take the part but also the chance to play such a complicatedly fractured man; indeed, for many stretches in the Cusack period of Wilson there is little music at all.
The actor tints his performance with moments of screwball comedy: a scene in which his Wilson tries to tell Ledbetter about matzo ball soup, for instance, or an elaborate runaround to avoid Landy.
Giamatti, meanwhile, offers a Svengali-like bite to Landy's methods, which can get as nitty-gritty as friend visitation hours or cheeseburger consumption.
Cusack said he interacted somewhat with Wilson, known for his politeness if not his chattiness. The actor got to know him backstage at some performance, and Wilson did visit the set. Cusack described the singer as "a bit of a Cheshire cat; like Dylan, he hides in plain sight a little bit."
Ledbetter proved a more forthcoming resource, offering her experience with Wilson, including their bizarre first meeting in which Wilson entered a car she was looking to sell him and started spilling the details of his psychological captivity. Landy was clearly manipulating his patient (or enabling him — there was evidence the doctor would treat Wilson's drug addiction by partaking with him.
But there was little documentation about the doctor, a shadowy figure who had few known confidantes. (He died in 2006.) So Giamatti pieced together the character from bits he could find, learning from articles and one or two distant acquaintances of his brief early-career period in the music business as George Benson's manager before he resurfaced as a cultish quack.
"There were these hours and hours of tapes I'd listen to," Giamatti said. "And he'd just keep talking and talking, in these completely huge paragraphs. They were brilliant-sounding, but if you dug into them they didn't make much sense."
Cusack said he understood from his own career how an anything-goes creative environment could lead to bizarre consequences.
"Some of this sounded like Hollywood 101 for the '80s," he said. "I remember arriving at 17 and I had been in one movie and they put me up in the Chateau Marmont where Belushi had died not long before. And I saw Andre the Giant in the lobby with a satin jacket that said 'Hell,' and I thought, 'Rock on.'
He paused, "There was so much cocaine. Everybody knows that, but I don't think they know what that meant."
Giamatti said he thought the idea of Wilson as a lost music star looking for answers and even a pharmacologically guiding figure was an understandable reaction to massive fame — he saw parallels in it to the case of Michael Jackson and convicted doctor Conrad Murray and the burgeoning California self-empowerment schools of thought.