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Love & Mercy: what Brian Wilson’s story tells us about genius and music

Brian Wilson’s music – the subject of Love & Mercy – is like a lesson we relearn each time we listen. Francois Duhamel/image.net

Love & Mercy: what Brian Wilson’s story tells us about genius and music

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see – Arthur Schopenhauer

Love & Mercy (2015), currently in cinemas, is a non-fictional recreation of two important and contrasting periods in the life of the Beach Boys’ singer, songwriter and producer Brian Wilson.

Directed by Bill Pohlad and starring Paul Dano (as younger Wilson), John Cusack (as older Wilson), and Elizabeth Banks (as Melinda Ledbetter), it is, according to Wilson, a “very factual” portrait of his musical and personal life in the 1960s and 1980s.

Much like the music of the man it is based on, Love & Mercy is beautiful, complex, somewhat melancholy, and thought-provoking. It also teaches us some things about creative genius, innovation, and art.

One of the striking things is the substantial amount of screen time the film devotes to the recording sessions of the Beach Boy’s 1966 album Pet Sounds.

It is not controversial to say that Pet Sounds – largely Wilson’s creation – was a game-changing achievement within popular music.

The Beach Boys in Love & Mercy (2015): (L-R) Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson, Graham Rogers as Al Jardine, Brett Davem as Carl Wilson, Jake Abel as Mike Love and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson. Francois Duhamel/image.net

It has been described as one of the most influential early concept albums, was credited by the Beatles’ producer George Martin as the reason Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) exists, and has influenced musicians ever since.

Inspired by the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul (1965), Wilson’s vision was to transcend the sugary-sweet mixture of hit singles and filler material most albums aspired to at that time.

His big idea was to create a unified artistic statement across a whole album.

By portraying the Pet Sounds sessions so extensively, Love & Mercy draws attention to the process of genius, rather than the product alone.

We are given a fly-on-the-wall experience of a rarefied time and place as we witness the explosive in-studio creativity of Wilson expanding the language and traditions of popular music.

The film reveals Wilson’s delirious way of working: spontaneously composing in the studio, leaving mistakes in, encouraging experimentation in others, and continually, himself, experimenting. This way of treating the studio as an instrument would become known as “playing the studio”.

Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy (2015). Francois Duhamel/image.net

We see him sampling and orchestrating bicycle bells and a barking dog, asking whether he can bring a horse into the studio, and bullying his cellists into sounding like airplane propellers.

The accommodating but somewhat baffled studio musicians and technicians contrast with the suspicion of fellow band member and Wilson’s cousin Mike Love, (played by Jake Abel) who accuses Wilson of selfishness and egoism: “Who do you think you are, Mozart?”

In a touching moment, Los Angeles session drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) reassures the young Wilson that, not only is he blowing the minds of the conservatory-trained session musicians with his unorthodox brilliance – he is even surpassing his idol, the producer Phil Spector.

In the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson is shown to have the uncanny ability to predict certain things would “work” musically, demonstrated in the film when a musician queries his choice of chords and bass line – they seem to be in two different keys, against all logic: surely a mistake.

Wilson’s response: “it works in my head, I think it’ll be OK”.

That small moment in the film is illustrative of Wilson’s over-arching certainty of vision. When Mike Love upbraids him for selfishly pursuing his esoteric artistic ideas at the expense of commercial success, Wilson can only respond with mute silence and a bewildered facial expression – his eyes follow Love’s mouth, as if searching for clues as to what he’s talking about.

It’s as if he can’t comprehend why Love is unable to see what he can see, let alone why it is special.

Of course, while seeing what others cannot, geniuses don’t actually create something from nothing. In fact, Pet Sounds suggests Wilson was uniquely attuned to what had come before him musically, and what was happening around him.

Influences

Wilson’s primary influences were naturally from popular music (Bill Haley and the Comets, The Ronettes, The Four Freshman), but other more radical influences are suggested in the film.

Experimental instrumentation and orchestration (harpsichords, flutes, a theremin, dog whistles, sampled trains, a de-tuned 12-string guitar, and Coca-Cola cans – Wilson’s “pet sounds” – were certainly innovative in the context of popular music, but the Futurists had been experimenting along similar lines since at least the beginning of the 20th century.

The film also shows Wilson clambering inside the piano to attach bobby pins to the strings, in an effort to obtain a harpsichord-like rattling effect. But experimental American composer John Cage had been extensively preparing pianos with all kinds of bolts, screws, wooden and rubber objects since at least 1940 (as had Henry Cowell before that).

The experimentation wasn’t all avant-garde; the exquisitely shaped, achingly beautiful counterpoint of the coda to God Only Knows, for example, evokes the 800-year-old technique of the musical round – perhaps new in popular American music of the 20th century, but not elsewhere.

None of that diminishes the vision of Wilson, who recognised this kind of experimentation had never been attempted within the domain of popular music.

On a deeper level still is the notion of the concept album. From Wilson’s perspective, Pet Sounds is a production concept album. Mostly inspired by Phil Spector, who had been revolutionising studio production techniques and creating the famed “wall of sound”, Wilson feels that his work constitutes an interpretation of Spector’s recording methods.

But it’s also possible to see the album as a song or lyric concept album, with a general theme of romantic loss, disappointment or disillusion, although not unified by an over-arching story.

Here one must acknowledge the striking parallels with another famed musical genius: Beethoven.

To a distant beloved

There are obvious parallels between Wilson’s and Beethoven’s biographies: an abusive alcoholic father, prone to beatings and aggressive stage managing; having a degree of deafness; and a trajectory toward unkemptness of physical appearance throughout life.

But there is a much more fascinating creative parallel: they both created a new genre, essentially the same genre, now known as the Song Cycle.

Inventing the Romantic song cycle in 1816 is one of Beethoven’s less widely known achievements. His An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), Op. 98, portrays a young man in love experiencing the pain of separation from his beloved.

An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98. Beethoven.

For the first time, a major composer had written a sequence of songs that were intended to be heard as a single, coherent statement rather than a collection (not necessarily a unified story, although that is also possible).

The idea was soon picked up and explored in a rich 19th-century efflorescence of unified song collections by Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf.

Pet Sounds can also be considered the first song cycle in popular music. And it too led to enthusiastic uptake in the output of others, most notably the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s), Van Dyke Parks (Song Cycle, 1968) and Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin On, 1971).

As with the song cycles of the past, Wilson’s gift was to be able to instantly create a strong emotional response, using text and music creatively.

On Pet Sounds, it takes Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) all of a few seconds to establish a sighing, end-of-summer haze that somehow evokes the bittersweet resignation of a couple about to leave each other (“let’s not think about tomorrow”).

The word painting – the musical depiction of the lyrics – in God Only Knows, on that same album, is more involved. Take just the first verse – there’s the surprising harmonic colour that accompanies the equally surprising (for a love song) entrance:

I may not always love you.

God Only Knows. The Beach Boys.

Then there’s the rather literal switch to high (falsetto) voice for the word “stars” (which are, clearly, also high).

Darker thoughts of doubt are shaded by diminished triads (highly unstable musical structures, subconsciously reinforcing the instability of “doubt”).

The harmonic uncertainty of the verse gives way to stability, clarifying itself just as the doubt of the text also resolves to “God only knows what I’d be without you”. It’s as if the music smiles at that moment.

And on it goes; somehow, this song is perfect.

The result of Wilson’s sensitivity to the music of both past and present, coupled with an eye to the future, is that Pet Sounds has a kind of depth and richness that sets it apart from anything that had come before in the world of pop.

Despite Pet Sound’s initially modest critical and commercial success, Love & Mercy shows how, in pursuing his vision, and possibly creating the first album that was intended to be listened to rather than danced to, Wilson (like Beethoven) was creating art for posterity.

Is there a downside?

Genius can be expensive. Recording Pet Sounds cost the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s terms. Even discounting the revenue it has generated over time, I would far prefer a world with an expensive Pet Sounds to one without.

Genius can also be erratic. There’s a short scene near the end of the film where Wilson begins to run aground creatively in working on the follow-up album, Smile, which was never completed in its original form.

A large group of musicians waits in silence as Wilson examines the walls, listening for something only he can hear. Apparently the end of a two-hour delay, he finally declares the vibe isn’t right, that the “space is hostile”, and cancels the session.

This expensive and erratic aspect of Wilson’s genius doesn’t fit quite so well with the modern, corporatised vision of innovation, in which efficiency constitutes a twin pillar.

And that’s where the research, the films, the discussion, and the analysis of individual parts tend to reach an impasse – the alchemy of genius is elusive, its end result greater than the sum of its parts. We know it when we see, hear, or feel it, and it’s very important to us on an emotional level.

Storytelling and melancholy

And then there’s the entire 80s portion of the film. Diagnosed with mental illness, scarred by drugs, exploited by a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti), and estranged from his family and children; Wilson’s darker years represent an extreme version of something many people can relate to – lost balance in pursuit of a vision.

In Love & Mercy, the story of a creative genius, we witness the retelling of an archetype derived from human nature. A story about unbridled and incandescent creativity and how much it can both give and take away, a tale that we can learn from over and over again.

So there is a neat overlap between artistic object and subject with this film. Because anyone who has loved a song, or a piece of music, will know that to love it is to come back to it over and over again. For many people, Pet Sounds is a trove of such treasures.

A song of genius like Don’t Talk can take us back in time, especially to our youth. That nostalgia for the past hurts – irretrievable except through memory, images, and sounds.

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulders). The Beach Boys.

Which leads me finally to melancholy, perhaps one of music’s most underrated gifts to the world. Mike Love complains in one scene that, with Pet Sounds, “even the happy songs are sad”. That comment takes us back to the film’s prologue, where Wilson reflects on what he’s striving for in his music:

Like a cry, but sort of in a good way.

How ironic that the music we choose to listen to – that we can’t help but love – means more to us the more it hurts. Paul McCartney has described God Only Knows as not only one of his favourite songs, but also one that makes him tear up each time he listens to or performs it.

There’s a kind of pain that attends the experience of certain songs, they remind us that beauty’s value, (like life’s), is somehow related to its transitoriness; the song/ life metaphor is all too clear – tragically short (God Only Knows comes in at under three minutes!), but beautiful while it lasts.

So like the storytelling archetype Love & Mercy embodies, Wilson’s music is like a lesson we relearn each time we listen.

Thankfully, creating symmetry with the early Beach Boys’ prelapsarian era of Sun, Sand and Surf, there’s a happy ending to this story.

As the film makes clear, Wilson’s life became very much worth living again thanks to the entrance of Melinda Ledbetter, now his wife and manager, and he is touring the world, performing, among other things, the version of Smile he always had in mind.

If you can’t make one of Wilson’s live shows, go and see Love & Mercy, or better yet, have a listen – or 20 – to Pet Sounds.