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Brian Wilson Film Shows His Post-‘Beach Boys’ Transformation

How the rock star found ‘love and mercy’ in his second act


What happens when you’re done being a rock star? If you’re lucky, according to the 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 Wilson’s transformation after he stopped surfin’ up the charts was so profound that it wouldn’t work to use cosmetics to age one actor from his 20s to his 50s.

“That wouldn’t reflect the reality of Brian,” says Pohlad. “There was just too much going on with him.”

As the cross-cutting tracks how events in Brian Wilson's youth complicated his later years, it's almost as if Wilson is two different people.

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.

An Intimate Portrait

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. As the cross-cutting tracks how events in Wilson’s youth complicated his later years, it’s almost as if the movie’s Brian Wilson is two different people.

“People know the movie is about Brian Wilson so it doesn’t quite work this way, but I wanted to preserve the idea for awhile 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).

The Courage to Change

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.

“It’s true that I sometimes feel like a different person than I was back then,” says Pohlad, who spent the intervening years observing master directors such as Ang Lee and Terrence Malick. 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.

Other Rock Biopics To Check Out

Here’s a list of other films in the Love & Mercy vein, with my favorites listed first:

  • Walk the Line (2005) — As far as the movies are concerned, the best rocker is one who dies young and pretty, which is why so many classics of the biopic genre (Sid and Nancy, The Buddy Holly Story, Control) are about musicians who croaked before they could disappoint us. Walk the Line defies that “wisdom,” taking us through the entire life of Johnny Cash. Along the way, it reveals that he always wrote great songs but it wasn’t until he met June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her elegant performance) that it dawned on Cash that music had the power to save him from his worst impulses.
  • What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993) — The film about Ike and Tina Turner has two big things going for it: Angela Bassett is astonishing as Turner, and she’s playing a character whose life became more interesting (and successful) in what could be called its second act. Tina Turner’s continuing glamor and ferocity — which, based on recent paparazzi shots, remain in full effect — make What’s Love a rare biopic that gets better as it moves forward through time.
  • This Must Be the Place (2011) — Borrowing the title of a Talking Heads song, starring Sean Penn in makeup that apes The Cure’s Robert Smith and skipping right past the hit-making years, this may be the best rock biopic you’ve never seen. The oddness of This Must Be the Place explains why a recent movie that co-stars Oscar winners (the great Frances McDormand plays Penn’s straight-talking wife) and was written and directed by a third Oscar winner (Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty won the foreign language prize) is practically unknown. But the melancholy comedy about a former — and fictitious — superstar figuring out what to do next has real insight into what it’s like to get stuck in routines that don’t work anymore.
  • Ray (2004) — Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles is worth seeing, for sure. But, dealing with a personal life that got increasingly byzantine as Charles aged, the script simply tells logic to hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more.
  • Jersey Boys (2014) — Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the stage hit about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hits all the stations of the terrible rock biopic cross: Unconvincing old-age make-up? Check. Cliched sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll script? Check. Nagging wives who wonder when Mr. Superstar can sandwich in a little cuddle time? Check. The movie is so disinterested in what’s going on in Valli’s off-stage life that when his daughter checks in with her middle-aged dad for a favor, we don’t even know who she is.

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