Brian Wilson, Revisited

Paul Dano stars as Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy," a biopic based on the life of the Beach Boy's musician. Francois Duhamel/Roadside Attractions

Consider the textbook '60s rock star. He's unshaven, decked out in leather, a cigarette behind his ear. While he occasionally can't get no satisfaction, he'll never lock himself in his room and cry about it. He wields a guitar like a light saber, and seeks to break on through to the other side.

Now consider Brian Wilson. While the Beach Boy was indisputably a rock god, he subverted that archetype: He was reserved and sensitive, clad in musty turtlenecks his mother probably bought him. Wilson was a lonely fellow who wrote songs in his bedroom, and grew into the kind of tortured-genius man-child who would put his piano in a sandbox.

The new film Love & Mercy, which tackles the soft-spoken musician's extraordinary life, shows how Wilson earned his place among rock royalty while eschewing most of what that entailed. Director Bill Pohlad's film (on which Wilson served as a consultant) isn't in chronological sequence—rather, it's an impressionistic portrait that compares two very different and emotionally charged phases of the musician's life. Paul Dano plays Wilson in the '60s, an artist at his creative peak but close to a mental wipeout during the creation of his paradigm-shifting album Pet Sounds. John Cusack portrays Wilson in the mid-'80s, as a washed-up 40-year-old struggling after years of loss, addiction and manipulation by his quack live-in therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The creation of Love & Mercy was not quite as knotty as the musician's life—but almost. Pohlad, who by his own admission was "always more of a Beatles guy," is a producer by trade, with credits including 12 Years a Slave and Brokeback Mountain. He was presented with a rough script about Wilson years ago, titled Heroes & Villains, that didn't quite resonate. Still, he continued picking at the project, teaming up with writer Oren Moverman (who wrote the formidable 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There), and eventually took over as director. "It was a growing connection with the material, both the music side and the human side, that did it," he tells Newsweek. "The person, and not the celebrity."

Getting to know that person meant grappling with uncomfortable truths on-screen. There were the tensions between Wilson and his abusive father, the heated artistic disagreements with cousin and frenemy Mike Love and the drowning death of Wilson's beloved brother (and drummer) Dennis. But Love & Mercy also confronts a universal artistic truth: In choosing to deviate from the norm—in this case, by rejecting the Beach Boys' pop sonnets about sun and surf—to create something unprecedented and challenging, the artist suffers, personally and professionally. When he willingly rejected in Pet Sounds the very sounds that made him famous, Wilson's problems compounded and he cracked. "He's hitting the peak of his creativity, and unfortunately in that peak he's hit with these blows that set him back and rocked him," Pohlad says.

While Love & Mercy is by no means the definitive representation of Wilson's life, it's one of the best biopics about a music icon. "So many things happened to Brian Wilson, you'll kill yourself trying to [capture] all the big moments," says Pohlad. "We're not trying to tell the whole story." The whole story can be found within the songs, though, which are Brian Wilson's beautiful, open wounds. Dano took rigorous piano and vocal lessons, getting to know his character through the songs into which Wilson poured his life.

"I don't think he grew the extra layer of skin that most of us grow to become adults," Dano says. "Because of that, he was probably a little bit raw or sensitive." It's tough to match Brian Wilson's dulcet pipes, but Dano sings everything—even "God Only Knows"—live in Love & Mercy. (And he isn't half bad!) Cusack, on the other hand, doesn't sing.

Wilson recently told The New York Times that while watching the film was tough, "it made me appreciate the fact that I had the courage to go through those bad trips." Love & Mercy depicts those trips (and stumbles) in dizzying detail, with rich scenes of Wilson creating his avant-garde orchestrations with the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, and also shows the panic imbedded in his singular talent. "What if I lose it and I don't get it back?" Dano, as Wilson, asks despairingly at one point. And for the filmmakers, grappling with the music's sophisticated arrangements and longevity presented its own challenges: how to appease Beach Boys fans while reimagining old favorites? "As great as the music is, I had no interest in making Mamma Mia! or something," Pohlad says.

Instead, he reached out to Atticus Ross—Trent Reznor's scoring buddy and a frequent collaborator of director David Fincher—to conceive the ambitious score. Ross almost turned down the gig because it was a biopic, but finally accepted on one condition. "If [Brian Wilson] was up for giving over the Beach Boys master tapes, [I thought] maybe we could recycle them and mess around with them," says Ross. "We could try to create something that tells a story but incorporates him at every moment."

The master tapes arrived, and Ross made audio collages that simulate Wilson's unusual sensitivity to sound (a predilection that earned him the nickname "Dog Ears" by Love) and the auditory hallucinations that were both the key to his genius and the cause of his unraveling, especially when he was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder. Swaths of overwhelming white noise, original compositional pieces sampling Wilson's voice, and the layered SMiLE album tracks in Love & Mercy's score re-create his world of sunshine and sadness, and slip you into his head.

Yet Love & Mercy's depiction of Wilson isn't so much about how he was a sad guy who rejected the rock star trappings. Instead, the film presents the gnarled life that birthed a different kind of rock star: unapologetically uncool, vulnerable and unafraid to admit that sometimes, yeah, he did feel very sad. "What people respond to [about Wilson] is a human looking far inside themselves and letting it all out in that way," says Ross.

Suffering became an act of defiance for Wilson. "One of my favorite things that Brian has said [to me] is that he wanted to make music to help people feel," says Dano. And while it's ostensibly about the Beach Boys, Love & Mercy is mostly a far-from-sunny testament to how Wilson injected so much depth and emotion into frothy surf-pop. Come on and safari indeed.