The Beach Boys, creators of tracks so synonymous with the era and Californian lifestyle that the merest hint of their music conjures up a carefree surfing lifestyle. A sport ironically only one of the band ever participated in.
Like so many things in life, nothing is as simple as it seems, creating joyful music can be hard won and in this case, came at a huge personal cost.
We first meet older Brian Wilson (John Cusack), the creative genius behind many of the best loved tracks as he nervously navigates a car show room. Chatting with salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) his ever present entourage appears, he leaves a note behind – “Lonely/Frightened/Scared”.
The film switches back to younger Wilson (Paul Dano) as the band commence their meteoric rise, initially helped then hindered by their apparently monstrous father Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). Disparaging tentative early drafts of “God Only Knows” one moment and selling the bands music rights from under them the next.
The initial band comprising brothers, Brian, Carl (Davern), Dennis (Wormald), cousin Mike (Abel) and friend Al (Rogers), move from innocent wonder at their success, through line up changes and now clichéd stages of rock and roll. Bickering, differing creative ambitions, petty jealousies, money, drugs and latterly for Brian, serious mental health issues.
What was obvious then and now, was that Wilson remained the creative force behind the band and broke new ground in how songs were put together. By combining harmonies and musical sounds that no-one had tried before, he was as innovative as the Beatles. Like many highly creative people, the borderline between genius and mental health issues was thin and ill defined. One moment cajoling experienced and “seen it all before” session musicians in wondrous new directions, then cancelling a session costing $5,000 as the vibes were wrong the next.
Dano is excellent in these sequences, all innocent wide eyed wonder and with ideas almost bursting out of him, only to suffer sheer torture as his mind begins to turn against him, generating sounds and voices he cannot stop. Coupled with his fathers betrayal and the bands initial scepticism at his new musical direction (Pet Sounds album), the film portrays almost the inevitability of his subsequent breakdowns.
The later sequences whilst necessary to show a very different part of Wilson’s life arguably do not gel as well. Cusack plays Wilson with some sympathy but always remains Cusack, the spotlight then moves to the now discredited Psychotherapist Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and Wilson’s ultimate saviour Ledbetter (Banks)
As usual Giamatti throws himself into the role. Manipulative, controlling and wholly destructive he effectively keeps Wilson a prisoner in his own home, funding the lifestyle by over-medicating and generally destroying what is left of Wilson’s mental health.
Wilson’s only true friends are his housekeeper Gloria Ramos and Ledbetter (later his wife), who attempt to prise what remains of Wilson from the tight grip of Landy. This section is harder to watch as the film portrays the tussle as simple good versus evil and proves frustrating, how something so obvious took so long to correct.
Only after much legal wrangling and help from a remaining brother Carl, was Wilson finally able to break free. Banks is particularly affecting in her role, her character arc moving from initial “celebrity” awe to caring about Wilson and then forced into necessary action against all the odds.
The best sequences of the film are the small glimpses we get into the creation of famous songs, hearing “God Only Knows” cautiously picked out on the Piano or other classics starting to come together in the studio, will give anyone that cares about music goose bumps.
A thoughtful and unusual musical biopic, defying usual conventions.
Arguably the earlier set sequences are the most interesting but to appreciate the highs you must also understand the context by relieving the lows.
Well worth seeking out