What does the world sound like when you're Brian Wilson? When you've made a record that sounds like cirrus clouds look — as Wilson did with the Beach Boys' small modern miracle of harmony, the 1966 Pet Sounds — all bets are off when it comes to the way ordinary aural signals are processed on their journey through ear canal to eardrum and beyond. The clatter of silverware on plates, the voices of people speaking in another room: When you're Brian Wilson, are they music, or are they unbearable?
The beauty, and the horror, of Bill Pohlad's exhilarating and inventive Love & Mercy — which traces the sine wave of Wilson's troubled adult life using two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack — is the sense it gives us of the world passing through Brian Wilson's ears. When the older, circa-1980s Wilson, played by Cusack, explains to his new girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that he hears voices in his head, she asks, with great tenderness, how long it's been happening. "Since 1963," he says. Is it possible that the Beach Boys' early hit "Surfer Girl," one of the warmest and most youthfully wistful ballads of twentieth-century pop music, began with a whisper only Wilson could hear?
That's not to suggest Love & Mercy leans on tired theories about the link between genius and madness: Pohlad's approach, and that of his writing team, Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, is much more delicate than that. But Love & Mercy — which was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his now-wife, Ledbetter — is surprisingly specific in exploring both the mystery and craftsmanship of song creation.
It's also, in the barest terms, a suspenseful and heartrending story: Love & Mercy opens in the early 1960s, after the Beach Boys — founded by Wilson and his brothers Dennis and Carl, along with their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine — have become a Top 40 sensation. We see Wilson in his younger incarnation, played by Dano in a mock-turtleneck ringer, worrying in advance about maintaining whatever gifts he's got: "What if I lose it and never get it back? What do I do then?" The image is grainy and muted, like fake documentary footage, a relic from a mythic, mystical past. Shortly thereafter, the action jumps to the 1980s, where Cusack, as the older Wilson, sits behind the wheel of a Cadillac that he doesn't yet own. It's still in the showroom, and the breezy blonde who's in the process of selling it to him — Banks's Ledbetter — listens carefully as he drops breadcrumb clues about the misery of his life. He's forced to leave abruptly, but before he does, he sneaks a card onto the seat. Ledbetter picks it up and reads the words he's scrawled to her: "Lonely Scared Frightened."
In Love & Mercy, reflecting what happened in real life, Ledbetter becomes instrumental in extracting Wilson from the clutches of shyster psychologist Eugene Landy, who essentially imprisoned Wilson after (incorrectly) diagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Paul Giamatti plays Landy in an unnervingly perfect performance: His smile is one of those false, jarring ones, where lips and teeth seem unsure of their respective roles. The performances in Love & Mercy are key to its power: Dano can be a dispassionate, affected actor, but all his arty coolness slips away here. We see him singing, and his face glows with unmitigated joy. Later, though, as the band he and his brothers founded begins to splinter — or as he bows under the abuse of his father, played by Bill Camp — he conveys the extent of his anguish with just the smallest flicker of an eye.
Cusack shows us a slightly different but no less believable Wilson, guarded and fragile, though we can also see how he yearns to be open: He's like a sadder, mirror-world version of Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, holding a boombox aloft in a cry for help, only to realize no sound is coming out. And Banks is superb: This is the finest performance she's given yet, an antidote to the tricky novelty of characters like the Hunger Games' Effie Trinket. When Giamatti's Landy tries to manipulate her with serpentlike charm, she almost visibly recoils — as if she could not only see and feel his snake oil, but also smell it.
If you know anything about the story of Brian Wilson, you know that Love & Mercy has a relatively happy ending, one in which Wilson's creativity and happiness are restored to him. But on his way there, Pohlad — who until now has been working mostly as a producer, with credits including 12 Years a Slave and Wild — gives us more than just the ups and downs of one strange genius's life. In one of the movie's most rapturous sequences, Dano's Wilson gathers a bunch of crackerjack studio musicians — players who will later come to be known as the Wrecking Crew — to turn the sounds in his head into a reality. They ask questions about unlikely countermelodies; they make little mistakes that Wilson, delightedly, incorporates into the record that will eventually become Pet Sounds. Under his guidance, these musicians become friends and allies; they warm to his touch. He's painting sounds with people. And perhaps that's how a record that might have become over-orchestrated to the point of artificiality instead sounds wholly, believably human, an instance of the voices inside one man's head engaging in easy conversation with the universe of sound around him.
Directed by Bill Pohlad. With John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti. Rated PG-13.