One of the musical groups every baby boomer remembers is The Beach Boys. They were Fun, Fun, Fun (til her Daddy took the T-Bird away). Well now there’s a movie about the founder of this mostly family rock group, and as NextAvenue.org’s Arts & Entertainment writer Chris Hewitt says, Brian Wilson found “love and mercy” in his second act.
What happens when you’re done being a rock star? If you’re lucky, according to a new film about The Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, you finally figure out who you are.
Love & Mercy producer/director Bill Pohlad says he always knew that Wilson’s transformation after he stopped surfin’ was so profound that it wouldn’t work to use cosmetics to age an actor from his 20s to his 50s.
Instead, Pohlad decided to illustrate Wilson’s dramatic personal growth by using two actors. He specifically chose actors who look nothing like each other, and didn’t let them compare notes, to make sure their performances remained distinct. Pohlad hired Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) to play “Past Brian” during the ’60s when The Beach Boys were becoming superstars and Wilson was cracking under the pressure. And he hired John Cusack to play “Future Brian,” grappling with mental health issues and struggling to carve out an identity away from the music business.
It’s not unprecedented, of course, for two actors to play a character at different stages of his life. But the effect in Love & Mercy is more complex than, say, the two who played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix and Ridge Canipe). This film is non-chronological, often cutting from Past Brian to Future Brian and back again.
It’s almost as if the movie’s Brian Wilson is two different people.
“People know the movie is about Brian Wilson, but I wanted to preserve the idea for a while that audiences might not even be sure if the actors are playing the same guy,” says Pohlad of his “intimate portrait” of the musician, who has to deal with the after-effects of drug use, an abusive parent, business pressures, an unhealthy relationship with a controlling physician (played by Paul Giamatti) and what was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
The film shows Wilson pulling his life together with the help of the woman to whom he has now been married for two decades, and embarking on a solo career that has brought creative fulfillment, if not the platinum records The Beach Boys racked up. (The 72-year-old Wilson released a new album, No Pier Pressure, this spring).
Despite the unconventional casting and structure of Love & Mercy, it’s ultimately an inspiring story about a person who had the courage to change the course of his life in his 50s, steering it in a direction that is healthier, happier and more satisfying. Wilson may have sung about Good Vibrations when he was in his 20s but the film— which the singer has endorsed— shows that he didn’t feel them himself until several decades later.
Not coincidentally, Pohlad also knows about reinvention. He’s one of the most powerful producers in the movie business, with Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave and A Prairie Home Companion on his resumé, but Love & Mercy is the first movie he has directed since Old Explorers in 1990.
About eight years ago, Pohlad, now 59, began feeling confident enough to consider plopping himself back in the director’s chair— a chair that has felt so good that he now considers himself a director first.
That means Pohlad, like Wilson, is defying both the oft-quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald line that there are no second acts in American lives, and the conventional wisdom in Hollywood biopics, which haven’t always known how to deal with rock stars once the hits stop coming.
The Beach Boys in 1965 with “California Girls” —