Beach Boy Brian Wilson says biopic ‘Love & Mercy’ gets it right

Musician Brian Wilson photographed at Capitol Records, March 12, 2015.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Brian Wilson has always seen the power of music as something that transcended mere entertainment.

Music, he has often said, has the power to heal, which makes it no surprise that, as he discussed his reaction to director Bill Pohlad’s upcoming Wilson biopic, “Love & Mercy,” he said his favorite scene is one that shows him shopping for a new car in Beverly Hills.

“I like when me and Melinda first met,” he said, referring to his introduction to saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, who years later would become Wilson’s wife. Their meeting, which on screen mirrors the real-life sequence of events, can be viewed as the beginning of a long, slow healing process that turned around the downward spiral Wilson had been on for decades to that moment.



“Love & Mercy”: An article in the April 4 Calendar section on the “Love & Mercy” biopic about Beach Boys founding member Brian Wilson described actor John Cusack as being Indiana-born. Cusack was born in Evanston, Ill. —
Starring John Cusack and Paul Dano playing Wilson in different periods of his tumultuous life, “Love & Mercy” includes a number of intense scenes that can make any moviegoer squirm. An afternoon barbecue at his beach house takes a dark turn when psychologist Eugene Landy, who took over Wilson’s life for several years in the 1980s, berates him for wanting to eat a hamburger. Wilson’s jealous father, Murry Wilson, abuses Brian and his brothers Carl and Dennis in their youth and after they gained worldwide fame with the Beach Boys. Wilson clashes with group co-founder Mike Love and record company executives, who resisted Wilson’s vision of taking the Beach Boys’ music into new artistic frontiers.

“Some of it was rough for me to sit through,” Wilson said, politely engaging in one of his least-favorite activities: media interviews. “It wasn’t always pleasant.”

Still, he praises the film, saying, “I thought it was very factual.”

For costar Cusack, it was a chance to immerse himself in the character of a musician he’s admired for most of his life.


“Take the sounds we grew up with and that are in our DNA now — we take it for granted those sounds were always there,” Cusack, 48, said in a separate interview. “Great art feels like it always was there. But when you really think about it, nobody had ever done this before. ...”

“I’ve always loved that period of pop culture and American history, where people who got out to Los Angeles at that time knew they had better make it there,” said the Indiana-born actor, “because they’ve run out of United States. And Brian is the great messenger of that soul that exists underneath the American Dream.”

Cusack’s performance as latter-day Wilson has been drawing praise from those closest to the musician, not only for the way he’s picked up on Wilson’s tics and speech patterns but for the underlying sweetness of his personality.

“He’s amazing,” said Melinda Wilson. “I don’t know how he did it — he just morphed himself into Brian.” As dark as the movie is at some junctures, Melinda said, “going through it was way darker than seeing it on screen.”


Yet her husband always strives to remain upbeat. Case in point: the movie’s final scene, when Wilson takes Ledbetter to visit his childhood home in Hawthorne, only to find it’s been razed and turned into a chunk of the 105 Freeway. As Wilson, Cusack pauses to take in the vision of his past having been obliterated, then turns to Banks and says, “You want to get something to eat?”

“That’s so Brian,” Melinda said. “He doesn’t wallow in the mire if it’s negative. He just gets over it — like he does with his music. It’s not negative, he’s just not negative.

“It’s like when he wanted to set our wedding date on Marilyn’s birthday so he wouldn’t forget that day,” referring to Wilson’s first marriage to singer Marilyn Rovell. “Some people would look at that as negative; for me, I thought it was funny.”

Cusack said he prepped for the role by visiting the Wilsons at their home in Beverly Hills. “I spent as much time with them as I could,” he said, “without becoming the guest that wouldn’t leave.”


Dano also has been lauded for his part as Wilson during his creative heyday in the mid-1960s, when he conceived, produced and recorded “Pet Sounds” and the long-shelved concept album “Smile,” recordings that are still considered among the greatest works of the postwar pop music era.

“Playing Brian is the greatest gift I’ve had as an actor,” Dano told The Times last year. “Without question the most fun I’ve ever had, the most rewarding.”

For his part, Wilson just keeps looking to what motivates him in the present. Following the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2013, Wilson said he wanted to make another studio album with his former bandmates. But Love chose to return to touring with his scaled-down configuration of the band, forcing Wilson to go in a different direction.

For “No Pier Pressure,” he instead opted to work with some new faces who have been making waves on the pop charts of late, including Kacey Musgraves, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, Nate Ruess of fun. and others. .


“Apparently he is a fan, which totally surprised me,” said singer and songwriter Musgraves, who has been lauded as one of the freshest recent arrivals in country music for her debut album “Same Trailer, Different Park.”

“They called me and said he was putting together an album with a bunch of ... artists he’s into right now and thinks were going places. I took that as the biggest compliment a musician and writer could get.”

Musgraves not only sang with Wilson but also co-wrote the track they recorded together, “Guess You Had to Be There.”

“He always figured out how to mix substance and great lyrics with really catchy melodies and pop sensibilities,” she said. “He also got really weird with his melodies, a cool combination of things nobody else was doing and that nobody else has mastered since … honestly, I feel like working with him made me better.


“He would not accept mediocre as an answer — not that I feel I’m a mediocre singer. But today there are a lot of producers and other people who will say ‘That’s fine — we can tune it later if it’s not perfect.’ Not Brian — he wanted it perfect.”

Indeed, Wilson famously told Paul McCartney he was singing flat at one point when the two masters of ‘60s pop music were working together. He also was advised, on meeting Queen Elizabeth II years ago, not to say anything when he approached and to just bow his head respectfully. Instead, when Wilson came to face her, he spouted a cheery, “Hi, Queen!”

Said Cusack, “He has a capacity to be brutally honest, in a rather matter-of-fact way. He just doesn’t have that [B.S.] gene in him like the rest of us.”

Instead, Wilson has always been focused first and foremost on his music.


“It’s extraordinary when you get into it,” Cusack said. “You hear all the influence from ‘Smile’ and ‘Pet Sounds,’ and you can still hear those influences in music today. It’s like there was some earthquake and he let all those sounds and forces out of the Earth.”

Twitter: @RandyLewis2