Brian Wilson Reflects on New Biopic, 'Love & Mercy'
Brian Wilson at the piano in a Los Angeles studio. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
Brian Wilson turns 73 this summer, but he’s not slowing down. The former Beach Boy has released "No Pier Pressure," his 11th solo album, he’s rehearsing for a world tour, and this month the Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy" hits theaters, telling a deeply personal tale that’s not all fun, fun, fun.
Before we go any further, be aware that Wilson is not exactly a huge fan of interviews. While many celebrities have no problem engaging in lengthy discourse about themselves and their art, one gets the feeling that Wilson is far more interested in simply making music. Or relaxing with his family. Or eating a melted cheese sandwich. He loves a melted cheese sandwich.
His answers are notoriously short, and often delivered in a breathless staccato. He says “right” a lot. Gets bored easily. And, coming up on his 73rd birthday, he's had to talk about himself to those looking to dissect his songs, his thoughts and his genius since Kennedy was in the White House.
Having said that, Wilson has his own unique charm. He’s an endearing guy. You root for him, by God. He’s painfully honest at times, though there’s apparently not a mean, rude or nasty bone in his body.
"Love & Mercy" delves deeply into his life, examining his struggles with mental illness and drug abuse, his years under the care of controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy, his relationship with second wife Melinda -- they met in 1986, married in ‘95 -- and the brilliant music he’s created that has come to define a time and place and state of mind for at least a couple of generations.
The Wilsons live with their five kids and 12 dogs in a big, but far from ostentatious, house in a gated Beverly Hills community.
Upstairs is Brian’s music room. Tall ceilings. Dark drapes. It’s quiet, peaceful. He’s got a grand piano, and a table covered with well-dusted awards and trophies. There are gold records, still crated, leaning against the wall, along with a portrait of his late brother, Carl, whose soaring, sweet high tenor voice graced many a Beach Boys hit. “God Only Knows”? That’s Carl.
Mr. and Mrs. Wilson enter the room -- Melinda rarely does interviews and has little truck with the spotlight -- and hunker down in a deep leather couch. They were involved with "Love & Mercy" to some degree, a Hollywood production they’ve been championing off and on for many years.
Brian spent time with the two actors who portray him, Paul Dano as 1960s Wilson at the apex of his creative powers, and John Cusack as the deeply troubled ’80s Wilson in the thrall of Dr. Landy. The psychotherapist helped bring Brian back from self-destruction, but ultimately took control over his patient’s life. He was barred from contact by court order in 1992. Melinda had a three-hour lunch with Elizabeth Banks, her onscreen counterpart, and consulted on the script.
Still, they weren’t ready for what they saw on screen.
“The first time I saw it, it was like, I didn’t know what to say,” recalls Melinda. “And Brian wasn’t with me ’cause I wanted to be the buffer in case it was just, 'Oh my God." And it was like, 'Oh my God.' I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I said to Bill [Pohlad, the film’s director], ‘I’ve got to go. I don’t know what to think.’ And I drove around the city for two hours.’”
“It was tough to watch,” admits Brian. “It really was.” Given the vivid scenes of the musician’s downward mental spiral and substance abuse, one can only imagine.
These days the substances are long gone, but Melinda says her husband still suffers from “schizoaffective disorder, which is a manic depressive with auditory hallucinations.”
“I have voices in my head,” clarifies Brian. “Mostly it’s derogatory. Some of it’s cheerful. Most of it isn’t.”
It’s a condition that’s clearly very difficult to live with, and one that is often misunderstood.
“It shows you how strong he really is,” says Melinda, “to go through what he went through, to go through what he still goes through with the voices, to be brave enough to get up onstage and do a concert.
“That’s what I wish people would take away from Brian’s story. Not that he’s this poor, pathetic guy that has had all these horrible things happen to him. Yeah, he has, but he’s lived through it and he’s managed to make beautiful music at the same time, he’s managed to be a good dad to our kids, he’s managed to put up with me. And that’s not easy.”
The undercurrent to the film, and to their real lives, is far from dark.
“Basically, it’s a love story involving she and I,” says Brian. “Also it captured my life, you know. What I went through, what I did with the records I produced and stuff."
“And that was a love story in and of itself, the music aspect,” Melinda says. “So the whole thing’s a love story."
A love story that began 29 years ago. She was selling Cadillacs at a west Los Angeles dealership. He wanted to buy one. They were united over a brown ’86 Seville.
“Right! Right! Yeah,” gushes Brian, excited at the memory. And the conversation between them begins.
“It was the ugliest car we had.”
“I liked it, though, I chose that one 'cause I liked it. 'That one’s for me.' ”
“My take is that he liked it because it was the first one he saw and he didn’t have to go upstairs and traipse through 300 cars.”
“A car’s OK for me, you know? A car’s all right to drive. Not to look at, but to get in it and drive it.”
“You see what I mean?” says Melinda.
It should be pointed out that a car is also good to write songs about.
“Right, well, I wrote a few car songs, yeah."
Darian Sahanaja knows all about Wilson’s car songs, and every other song the man has written. Since 1999, Sahanaja has been a singer and keyboardist for Brian Wilson's Band. But far from being simply a hired gun, Sahanaja, 52, comes by his Brian passion honestly.
“The Beach Boys are my favorite group,” the Los Angeles native says. “They were since I was 12 years old. In a period when it was way cooler to be listening to Led Zeppelin and the Stones and Aerosmith and all those groups, I actually took regular beatings from neighborhood boys because I loved the Beach Boys.”
Sahanaja was supervising musical consultant on "Love & Mercy," translating his passion and respect for the man and material into meticulous recreations of Wilson in the studio during the classic ‘60’s "Pet Sounds" era.
“The last cut I saw was very satisfying to the point where I actually teared up,” he says. “The filmmaking matched the artist. He’s an enigma, Brian’s an enigma, and the filmmaking felt enigmatic, so there’s lots of moments of beauty and sadness, which to me is a big part of Brian’s music. Joy and tragedy, you know?”
While joy seems a hard-won commodity in Wilson’s life, Sahanaja has witnessed it firsthand.
“I have to say, when he’s feeling the love from an audience and he’s feeling the band and the vocals and it sounds really good, it’s because it just makes him — for that moment — feel so happy, which is probably something he doesn’t feel a lot. Those are the moments he’s wanting, you know, he’s hoping for.”
Back to the couch. If there’s one takeaway Wilson wants audiences to get from the film, it’s this:
“I want them to try and feel next to me, and feel what I went through. And if they’re going through something, they would be able to identify with me.”
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” offers Melinda. “People that have a mental illness, they don’t have to stay stuck with it. There’s help.”
Now, after talking for 44 minutes, Brian’s ready to get off the couch and get on with his daily ritual.
“I go to a park and take walks for a half-hour every day,” he says.
Does he get recognized?
“Yeah, a lot. Yeah. People say, ‘Hi Brian, how are you?’ and I don’t know who in the hell-heck they are. I don’t know. I think I’m going to take an exercise right now.”
He shakes hands, says, “Thank you very much” politely, and then he’s gone.
Soon Wilson sets off on a world tour, once again bringing music and joy to people he doesn’t know, and perhaps walking around a park near you.