Love and Mercy– A Story of Abuse and Survival


I was thirteen years old, and ‘I Get Around'(1964), was definitely going round and round on turntables all over America. The Beach Boys were topping the charts, and the Beatles were moving up quickly in the speed lane. None of us then knew the tragic story of a gentle musical genius named Brian Wilson who had been abused by his abrasive and controlling father, and then fell into the hands of an equally abusive and controlling shrink, which took him years to escape from. No wonder the man was driven mad from all the drugs the shrink had given him and the abuse he had suffered. Most musical geniuses are gentle souls, and very wide open and vulnerable to whatever comes their way. On the one hand, this is what feeds their musical genius, but on the other hand, it makes them much too susceptible to domineering people and bad influences. If only the music had played in Brian’s head, he would probably have been fine, but it was competing with the jarring images of a damaged past and present when he was at the peak of his creative powers (see the classic album Pet Sounds, Smile, and Surf’s Up). I have been a musician all my life and I have no idea at all how he could hear so many different musical parts in his head all at once and then discretely separate them and write down charts for all the different instruments. Amazing.

I went to see ‘Love and Mercy’ (a title taken from one of Brian’s later solo albums after he got control of his life back) with some trepidation, knowing it could be a difficult watch to see a beautiful mind deteriorating and being abused. I was also unsure of whether the decision to let Paul Dano play the younger Brian Wilson and John Cusack the older Wilson would work. Dano at least, with the right hair, looks a bit like Brian, but not Cusack. No way. Perhaps, I thought before I entered the theater, the movie will be about the music which is poignant and fun and in places profoundly beautiful. But it wasn’t. It was a two hour tale of Brian’s life taken from his autobiography and the music, while not tangential at all to the life, was largely second fiddle to the narrating of life events. Let me just say the acting is superb, and not just the two leads but Paul Giamatti as the abusive shrink is scary good, and Elizabeth Banks playing Melinda (Brian’s later girl friend and current wife) is radiant and does a fine job.

We get some of the story of the interaction between the brothers Wilson and cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. We also got a story told by means of jumping back and forth between the later Brian and the earlier Brian, which was o.k., especially if you already knew Brian’s story. This movie is not a thriller, it is not a CG enhanced summer popcorn movie, it is a serious movie about a serious subject, and happily it is a tale of survival and of the healing power of Melinda’s love for Brian, for it is Melinda who finally helps Brian extricate himself from the abusive and controlling shrink (never mind the father who sold away the rights to Brian’s songs without Brian’s permission).

This is not a feel good movie, unlike many of the Beach Boys songs, it’s a feel better movie about being well in the end and finding a modicum of peace and happiness— by means of love and mercy, which in the end, do make things turn out alright. Brian could have quoted another movie and said ‘Everything will turn out alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it is not yet the end’. Bravo to Brian for enduring and prevailing.

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