Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald, Graham Rogers, Erin Darke
Running Time: 121 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"Sad. Lonely. Terrified." Those are the three words a middle-aged Brian Wilson scribbles on the back of his future wife's business card during their awkward first encounter in the 1980's. They can also best describe the troubled life of the legendary Beach Boys musician and songwriter, whose fascinating story somehow escaped a big screen treatment until now. It wasn't for a lack of trying, but rather waiting for the right director, script and actor to play him. While it may have taken decades for all the pieces to finally fall in place, the result is one of the more unconventional biopics in recent years, putting a laser-like focus on the two most pivotal eras of his life. It's sad, emotionally draining and insightful, confirming our suspicions that of all the music icons, living or deceased, his journey ranks among the most unique.
Had director Bill Pohlad gone the way of a traditional, straightforward biopic I wouldn't have complained and it still could have been one of the more satisfying moviegoing experiences of the year. Instead, he takes a huge gamble by splitting the story, practically begging viewers to draw comparisons and take sides in what would initially appear to be an unfair battle. There's no sense denying it's the 60's era Wilson everyone's most interested in and that on paper Paul Dano seems born to play the young Brian, joining an exclusive list of perfect casting decisions like Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. He doesn't disappoint, exceeding already high expectations.
Given the chance to capture Wilson's essence and physical mannerisms, we already had an inkling of what the quirky, off-kilter Dano could possibly bring to the part, as well as the type of film we'd get. It was rashly assumed the 80's section of Wilson's story would be an afterthought, with the casting of John Cusack as the elder version being at best a head scratcher. At worst, most thought it could be a potential disaster, which is less an indictment on his acting abilities than a critique of his recent VOD-filled career trajectory (which has drawn understandable comparisons to Nicolas Cage) and lack of physical resemblance to the musician. Such a performance wouldn't seem to be in his wheelhouse, even with fingers crossed that he'd somehow pull it off. Well, he does. But the bigger surprise is how both eras exist on equal footing in terms of time, attention and creative quality. Neither would mean as much without the other, even as they still seem worlds apart.
It's the early 1960's and young songwriter Brian Wilson (Dano) is rapidly rising to fame with his band, The Beach Boys, consisting of cousin and co-founder Mike Love (Jake Abel), Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) and brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis Wilson (Kenny Wormald). With Brian's creative genius driving them in the studio, it isn't long before the band shoots to the top of the charts with massive hits like "Surfer Girl," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Surfin' U.S.A."Getting the itch to take the group's sound in a more mature direction, Brian soon fires their father Murry (Bill Camp) as manager and sets out to abandon much of the fun surf rock that made them famous. He instead withdraws into the studio with the goal of creating the "the greatest album ever made." The resulting Pet Sounds is a critically praised but commercially underperforming psychedelic concept album that splits the band apart, with Brian's grip on reality slipping as he's tormented by the voices in his head.
The parallel 1980's narrative focuses on a middle-aged Brian (Cusack), depressed and overmedicated under the tyrannic supervision of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. Misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he's held hostage in his own home and unable to go anywhere without being flanked by handlers, making every outing a major production for the fragile star. A trip to the Cadillac dealership leads to him meeting saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who's intrigued enough by his oddness to agree to a date. As their relationship grows and Brian becomes more independent, she realizes the dangerous extent of Dr. Landy's control over him, working tirelessly to get him away before he dies under this madman's care.
Both timelines, while wildly different in their aesthetics, are also eerily similar in how they fit in piecing together the complete picture of who Brian Wilson is as a person and musician. And that common thread is an abusive and overbearing father figure who Brian resents yet still can't help but try to please. In the 60's it was his father, who verbally and physically assaulted him and his brothers. Later, it's Landy who controls him with seemingly even more force. Based on what's shown, his father has a tin ear as a music producer, from being completely underwhelmed by "God Only Knows" to boldly declaring The Beach Boys won't be remembered in fifty years. Of course, this proves he probably would hated anything his son did, but boy do we ever see and hear what Brian does. And exactly how he does it.
From opening credits, the depiction of the band in their prime has an almost documentary-like approach that makes you feel as if you're watching archival footage rather than a merely respectful recreation of key events in group's early career. And while other musical biopics too often face roadblocks in obtaining music rights (see the recent Jimi: All Is by My Side), the band's best work is here incorporated masterfully onto the soundtrack and into the narrative itself. And in what has to be a first, we're granted seemingly unprecedented access into Brian's process in the studio, in particular how he created Pet Sounds and saw that vision through to the end while using extremely unconventional instrumentation and methods.
Pohlad spends a lot of quality time on the making of the actual music, unlike most biopics that only talk about how their subject is unique or even a "genius," as if expecting us to just take their word on it. This very specifically shows us why. Note for note. We also see how he comes up with "Good Vibrations," as a nearly dialogue-free sequence takes us from its gestation period with Brian just fooling around on the piano, all the way to it becoming the classic it's now regarded as.
Despite never appearing, The Beatles seem to be this omnipresent force bubbling just below the surface, with both bands competitively but healthily pushing and borrowing from each other to reach their creative peaks. With Wilson's new direction practically a direct response to the "British Invasion," you get the impression that maybe John Lennon understood what Wilson was going for better than his own father and bandmates. It's a nice angle to include and screenwriter Oren Moverman is smart enough to only lightly push it, letting viewers make of it what they may. It's just a beautiful thought to leave in our minds and one of many small details the script absolutely nails.
What's most interesting about Dano's performance is how it bleeds into the parallel story. You see shades of the naive, childlike soul who would overtake him in the 1980's with the only difference being that past Brian at least had the confidence to go in his own direction, regardless of whom it alienated. Dano's made a career of playing supporting oddballs with a good heart so the starring role of Wilson is a natural fit, even when putting the uncanny physical resemblance aside (which his reported thirty pound weight gain only enhances). He also gets the vocal down well enough for the real Brian to sign off on it, with Pohlad careful enough not to give him too much to do in that department. This works since performing was never Wilson's first love anyway, freeing the story up to focus more on his genius as a writer and producer.
Drugs use is talked about and even shown, but it's inclusion is more directly related to how it affected the music rather than Brian. It wasn't the root of his problems, at least until Dr. Landy got a hold of him over a decade later, as his pushing of prescription drugs cause a more severe form of chemical dependency that anything in the 60's. Giamatti is in full "pig vomit" mode here, only far scarier and menacing as he works under the guise of "rescuing" Brian from his three years spent bed ridden and depressed. If you thought Brian's dad was a pitiful, abusive record producer, all bets are off after seeing Landy screaming at the nearly comatose former Beach Boy hunched helplessly over his piano.
There's a squirm-worthy barbeque sequence where we first realize the true extent of Landy's power over Brian, who's essentially a prisoner at this point. This is the first time Elizabeth Banks has truly been tested in a major way dramatically and it's surprisingly just how strong a center to the story Melinda is, basically saving his life and breaking through the childlike shell to still see the brilliant, generous musician hiding underneath. She doesn't play her as a saint, but rather someone just tough and brave enough to face Landy head-on and win, even if it means the end of what's been a heavily supervised relationship with Brian.
Cusack has the tougher job since it could have been problematic picturing him as the musician to begin with, regardless of the age or time period (even if mid-eighties photos reveal it to be a closer match than you'd think). He bares even less of a resemblance to Dano, and yet that's hardly noteworthy since it's easy to believe this guy's been through enough that he wouldn't. He's also portraying someone even deeper in the throes of mental illness than his younger counterpart, but Cusack clears all these hurdles, transcending his subject to deliver something more substantial and fulfilling.
Besides getting the tics and mannerisms just right, Cusack creates an enduring, likable portrait of this sensitive man-child who just so happens to be Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Just his work opposite Banks in the opening scene at the dealership and when he's receiving Landy's constant psychological abuse represents the actor's best work in years, if not decades. For a story in which we know the general outcome, if not the specifics, he keeps us on the invested and on edge by showing us the most challenging side of Wilson to depict on screen: His days spent as a depressed, inactive spectator to his own life. And finally, Cusack gets a great role that shows us how good he is and still can be when given meaningful material.
Shattering preconceptions, Pohlad tells manages to create this complete portrait of Wilson out of two halves. While the 60's portion containing more nuance and detail than we ever expected, the 80's section manages to hold us completely captive, shining a previously unseen spotlight on Wilson's darkest period. Both tragic and triumphant, it's less a biopic than a hazy, surreal journey through the psyche of one of our most brilliant, tortured artists. There's a sequence toward the end that's a real head trip, converging Brian's life into a series of influential people standing bedside as he slowly awakens from what's been his long, painful nightmare. It gives the song "In My Room" a whole new meaning and makes us wonder what the real Brian Wilson must be thinking while watching this.