‘I’m writing a teenage symphony to God,” Brian Wilson told guests gathered at his home for dinner in late 1966. The leader, songwriter and producer of the Beach Boys was fresh off the success of the groundbreaking single “Good Vibrations”—the biggest hit of his career—and the album “Pet Sounds,” which was hailed by critics as a pop masterpiece.
Sadly, the symphony he hoped to create, to be entitled “Smile,” was soon abandoned because of Wilson’s deteriorating mental health and substance abuse. His breakdown marked the end of the most intensely productive and creative period of his life and the beginning of a tortuous, decades-long struggle with mental illness, addiction and perverse manipulation by an unethical psychotherapist.
“Love & Mercy,” Bill Pohlad’s biopic of Wilson, artfully reflects the genius, madness and tragedy of its subject. It is a kaleidoscopic Amadeus tale set in late 20th-century Southern California. Though it is far more grounded in actual events than Milos Forman’s Mozart movie, it shares that film’s ability to evoke the transcendent—and often troubled—mingling of beauty and ineffable truth in the creative soul.
Readers who are now rolling their eyes at the thought of including the composer of “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Help Me, Rhonda” in such rarefied air might be surprised to learn that in the mid-1960s, the Beatles’ only real creative rivals were the Beach Boys. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson were intensely competitive with one another as they both pioneered ways to use recording technology to expand the limits of what was possible in popular music. Pop, which was once roundly dismissed as gooey pap for kids, was now stretching boundaries musically and sonically and attracting the attention and respect of luminaries like Leonard Bernstein.
McCartney and Wilson engaged in a trans-Atlantic musical arms race of sorts with the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” spurring Wilson to create “Pet Sounds,” which in turn inspired McCartney to answer with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Their youthful rivalry eventually mellowed into lifelong admiration. In 1990, McCartney told an interviewer that he had bought each of his children a copy of “Pet Sounds.” “I love the album so much.... I figure no one is educated musically until they’ve heard [it].” He also named Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” track, the aching “God Only Knows,” as his favorite song ever. “It is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it,” McCartney said in 2007.
Pohlad’s film cleverly bounces between the 24-year-old Wilson in the 1960s (played by Paul Dano) and the artist in his late 40s (John Cusack). The younger Brian works to give life to the beautiful music he hears in his head—despite the onset of auditory hallucinations—while the elder version struggles to have a life under the 24-hour surveillance of his quack/therapist, Eugene Landy.
Landy, who once aspired to be in show business, was not the only Salieri figure haunting Brian’s life. Murry Wilson, the artist’s father, was a struggling songwriter and managed the Beach Boys for a time. He was also a legendarily abusive man. (Brian’s loss of 90 percent of his hearing in one ear is believed to be partially the result of a blow to the head from his father.)
Unlike Mozart, Wilson survived his tormentors. He never regained the white-hot brilliance of his muse in the 1960s but he continues to tour and record, and his influence has been seminal on generations of musicians from the Ramones to Radiohead.
The effects of his long struggle with schizoaffective disorder make him appear a bit loopy at times, but Wilson’s great gift was never self articulation. It was channeling. “Don’t forget: music is God’s voice,” he reminded people at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence,” said then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about Mozart in 1996. He also noted that for him, having grown up in the shadow of Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Mozart’s music “thoroughly penetrated our souls.”
Much of the same could be said about Brian Wilson. Separated by centuries and thousands of miles, he survived incredible physical and psychological abuse, dark paranoia and psychiatric breakdowns and made some of the most extraordinarily beautiful and inventive music of his time. How he did it, God only knows.