The banality of brilliance: what Love & Mercy gets right about the depiction of genius
By choosing to make the film Love & Mercy, a mostly factual retelling of the life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, director Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner chose to bear an unenviable responsibility: translating for the screen the dazzling creative brilliance of one of music's most revered figures.
Taking place over alternating timelines in the 1960s and 1980s, the film spends over half its length capturing a young, prolific Wilson as he conceives and produces Pet Sounds, his magnum opus and is still the work first cited in any consideration of his songwriting prowess.
In the early 1960s his group topped the charts with pleasant but disposable pop postcards from California about cars, girls, summer, hot dogs and the beach. Still a teenager himself, the innocent ebullience of his lyrics paired with The Beach Boys' airy surf rock to create some of the sweetest and most enjoyable music of its time, music that spoke to a carefree generation of budding flower children still yet to be turned against The Beach Boys and towards the darker, political music of the anti-Vietnam War era.
Through his early 20s, Wilson took influence from innovators pushing music to new places, both in terms of sonic complexity (The Beatles), and slick, detailed production (The Ronettes, courtesy of producer and svengali Phil Spector). In the space of two years he had completely broken down the hit-making template that spawned songs like "Surfin' USA" and "Little Deuce Coupe", and in its place developed his own version of Spector's wall of sound, an almost incomprehensibly intricate barrage of interweaving instruments, found sounds and poetic lyrics.
All told, Wilson is credited with writing over two dozen Top 40 hits and in 2015 was listed as the twelfth greatest songwriter of all time by Rolling Stone. His status as a musical genius is of little dispute, and over 50 years after he first formed The Beach Boys, Love & Mercy's poster promises viewers an insight into "the life, love and genius of Brian Wilson".
But while the visuality of cinema excels at expressing intangible ideas impossible in other art forms, intellectual genius is not of them. Being gifted is so ordinary and so natural to geniuses that they can't even recognise it in themselves, and indeed even Wilson himself fails to put into words where his music comes from. "It comes from the brain and it goes down to your hands and then on to the keys," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in a 2015 interview. This ungraspability poses obvious challenges to filmmakers hoping to capture the essence of a genius on screen, because the concept is also so fundamentally unknowable to non-geniuses that audiences would have no way of recognising even an accurate depiction, like a two-dimensional plane trying to imagine a cube. And just as to flatten a cube into two dimensions is to destroy exactly what makes it a cube, depicting genius as a kind of magical inspiration — as most biopics do — irreparably affects the audience's understanding of it.
A painful metaphor in Good Will Hunting compares the main character to classical composers:
Will: I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn't paint you a picture, I probably can't hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can't play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my O-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that... I could always just play.
Similarly, in 2014's hollow Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, ideas come to the great scientist's mind as if divined from the aether, a technique to crack Germany's wartime encryption arriving fully-formed in his brain and translating into a wonderfully impressive, but to the audience completely opaque, spinning dial machine.
These depictions — and similar ones in films like Amadeus, A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything — provide no insight into the intellectual processes of their characters, and therefore no greater understanding of the nature of exceptional ability. If these films are striving for understanding, they surely fail to achieve it.
Brian Wilson didn't engineer computers or solve complex mathematical equations. His genius was a musical energy so ambitious, so tenacious, that it had to be focused in the right direction for there to be any music at all. In The Beach Boys' early days, that focus was forced upon him in the form of mental, emotional and physical abuse from his father, who managed the group. "My dad scared me so much that I actually got scared into making great records," a reflective Wilson (John Cusack) says in the late 1980s portion of the film.
In the real world, conventional wisdom holds that Wilson's failure to finish SMiLE, his follow up to Pet Sounds, before falling victim to mental demons and drug dependencies is a tragedy. There is also the persistent meme that perhaps Wilson was only able to create art because of his illness — like two sides of the same coin, what made it difficult for him to operate on the same level as others socially, allowed him to operate on a different level musically. The reality, as it so often is when it comes to dramatisations of real life events, is probably much more mundane than all of that.
Before the Pet Sounds sessions shown in the 1960s portion of the film, Wilson (here played with exquisite depth by Paul Dano) fires his father, and with no one to push him in the right direction struggles to harness his intellectual energy in a productive way. He complains of voices in his head, and difficulty reaching the dark recess of his psyche where the music resides. As he tries to make sense of the fog of external pressures and influences around him — Phil Spector, The Beatles, his family, his band mates — he toils in the studio, experimenting with his "pet sounds": whistles, bells, horns.
Intricate sound design and Atticus Ross's hymenopterous score helps the audience understand that Wilson is actually creating his music, through trial and error, brick by brick. Slowly, almost torturously building pieces into a cohesive whole, we see every element begin as an amorphous idea and watch as it develops into something more concrete. There is no divine intervention, no bolt from above that might suggest that anyone but Brian Wilson is responsible for it. From idea to execution, the audience literally sees and hears the various instrumental parts being written, and then when its architect finally pieces everything together and lays it down on tape, everything just clicks. From Brian Wilson's head, down to his hands and then on to the keys.
In his extended review of Pawn Sacrifice, a biopic of the late chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, Richard Brody writes that "genius is a form of tunnel vision and leaves little room for contact with common sense". That is, that genius is useful only in the very narrow field in which its possessor is gifted, and they must necessarily lose touch with the process of creation that regular people might understand.
To us mere mortals the end result might seem miraculous, but Love & Mercy shows us that — and, more importantly, shows us how — The Beach Boys' music was really brought to life through the studious application of craft, at the precise direction of a genius.