Love & Mercy: Brian Wilson’s Story

I am learning to be kind to myself when I am under pressure. Lately this means coming into the day slowly before plunging into the daily grind. This morning my newsfeed informed me that it’s been 50 years since the release of Pet Sounds and that Sinead O’Connor has been found (via this compassionate article on mental health).

In the spirit of these themes — honouring Brian Wilson, changing attitudes toward mental health, and being kind to myself — I’m finally posting a blog on Love & Mercy I began writing last year.


I watched Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy twice in 2015: first at Berlinale, then again when it came to the cinema in August. The story was just as powerful upon second viewing, and the music is fantastic.

A confession — I’m not the biggest Beach Boys fan; I can take them in small doses and enjoy the throwback to another time that their music evokes. John Cusack is the main reason Love & Mercy was on my radar as I love most of the roles he chooses. Oh, and the opportunity to attend the European Premiere at Berlinale. Yes, this meant the honour of watching it with Brian and Melinda Wilson, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks present. Brian Wilson is a brave man — having the courage to live through the hell he went through, never mind giving someone permission to interpret and present it on screen. It was poignant to be able to applaud for him and his wife at the end.

Love and Mercy follows the Beach Boys’ success and subsequent interior friction as Wilson’s creative direction diverges from the standard pop music of the time. We watch the mental toll on young Brian, while simultaneously watching him 20 years later, isolated from his family and friends as he seeks freedom from the “protection” of his psychologist. The first time round, I was so disturbed by the character of Brian’s psychologist and his controlling manipulation that tears came and stayed with me on and off until the end.

I know very few artists/musicians who don’t push up against the edge of sanity. The process of creating and bringing an idea from an internal vision to an external reality — then facing the approval or rejection of a watching world — is no small task.

On the second viewing, I realised how much I loved re-watching the scenes of musical creation, as Brian directs the musicians in the recording studio while his brothers are on tour in Japan. The interplay between music and interactions with minimal dialogue creates a sense of actually being in the room and inside of Brian’s brain at the same time. I could watch hours on end of just studio scenes, the process of watching/hearing the music develop is so delightful. This in itself speaks to the artistry of the writing/soundtrack/cinematography. (Are there any non/musicians out there who enjoyed it as much as I did?)

This nuanced balance of dialogue and music continues as Brian becomes increasingly troubled, and is integral to the film’s success in telling Brian’s story with such grace. Director Bill Pohlad & writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner portray Wilson’s mental condition with delicacy and dignity.

Of course, this would not be possible without the emotionally intelligent performances of Dano, Cusack, and Banks. Dano owns the character of the young Brian at the height of musical genius facing increasingly tumultuous mental and emotional pressure; 20 years later, Cusack gracefully strikes the balance between greatness and brokenness. Banks is both tough and tender as Melinda, the woman willing to enter Brian’s world, not writing him off for his oddness, bearing with the strangeness of his life, and choosing to be an advocate for him, even when it meant letting him go.

At the end of the day, we are all humans who need love and grace. Huge success doesn’t safeguard you from having unsafe people in your life. You can have a successful career, and go places with your art that no one else is going, and still end up so broken and alone. It didn’t matter how well-known Brian’s name or music was/is — genuine love from another person was something missing in his life until he met Melinda.

All the accolades in the world can’t replace being seen and known by one person.

But why am I writing about this over a year later? It’s because I can relate to the crazy portrayed in the creative process, the ups and downs that are part of making art. I also empathise with these celebrities — Wilson, Sinead O’Connor, [fill in the blank actor/pop star/etc] — who live on this rollercoaster under a spotlight, with the public weighing in and judging. The pressure of being an artist is great enough with the freedom of being unknown, never mind having a large following of people hungry for “news” about you.

Creating art means going to a place of ideas, where the personal and technical and experimental meet; where it can be hard to know where one’s self ends and the art begins. Putting out art for others to experience, consume, engage, means putting parts of one’s self out on display, and that can be a vulnerable process. And it can be scary when critics are harsh and judgment is strong. And there’s always the question

is this any good?

It takes bravery to step into that place of creating, playing with concepts, failing and trying again. (And again and again).

And yet — all of the art-making in the world can’t fill the need for relationship with other humans. I’m learning the balance of jumping into the crazy creative flow, while still leaving space in my life for meaningful relationships. For space to cultivate love & mercy.

So that’s why Love & Mercy struck a chord with me. It’s a story of an artist’s genius, strength, weakness, breakdown, entrapment, and restoration. You’re not just watching him; it’s as if you’re in his head. And this makes his path to freedom all the more sweet.


If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And if you haven’t seen it yet, go on go on go on! You won’t regret it. :)