Love and Mercy is Just a Taste of What Brian Wilson Went Through

There’s a scene in Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy when Brian Wilson, played by Paul Dano, is in the recording studio with the rest of the Beach Boys. His abusive father and former manager Murry has just paid them a visit and Wilson — afraid of getting berated by him in his ongoing battle for approval — goes into another room alone, puts on a pair of headphones, and begins hearing noises; only the noises aren’t coming from the headphones, they’re from inside his head. At first, they scare him, and he recoils. But soon, Wilson keeps the headphones on, embracing the turbulent, sporadic sounds that plague him. It’s a powerful scene symbolizing Wilson’s lifelong battle with what is now known as Schizoaffective Disorder: with genius, there must be punishment.

Though the tortured artist act is considered cliché these days, in Brian Wilson’s case, it’s reality. And though Pohlad’s film shows plenty, it only touches the surface of what Wilson really went through.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Disorders, Schizoaffective Disorder is a combination of schizophrenia — hallucinations or delusions — and mood disorders such as depression or mania. Causes of the disorder are not entirely certain, though drug use and stress can trigger the symptoms. It’s also known to run in families.

One of Pohlad’s challenges when making The Beach Boys biopic was how to convince movie-going audiences what it’s like for Wilson to live with Schizoaffective Disorder.

And he does so brilliantly.

Retired Professor of Abnormal Psychology at England’s Magdalen College Gordon Claridge believes in the case of Wilson, the heightened perceptivity and thinking style associated with the schizophrenic element of Schizoaffective Disorder, along with a high mood state might actually spur creativity. “There is something called ‘flight of ideas’ in mania which illustrates the point: an extreme off-the-wall form of thinking which, in pathological form, might lead to wildly unrealistic (delusional) thoughts and behaviors but in moderate form might link ideas constructively.”

This plays out in the film in the form of the legendary Pet Sounds recording sessions, where Wilson’s manic creativity spawned one of the most innovative records of all time. Pohlad worked with composer Atticus Ross to put together a soundtrack for the film that combined bits and pieces of Beach Boys music together with random, everyday noises, and the voices of prominent people in Wilson’s life — such as his father, bandmate Love and Dr. Eugene Landy, whose care Wilson was under for much of the film — to portray a sense of what Wilson’s auditory hallucinations might have been like and how eventually, he was able to harness these sounds and create a musical masterpiece.

Record and film producer Jeff Winner — who is also a noted rock historian — has seen the film twice. Because of the two-hour timeframe, Pohlad had to carefully pick and choose specific areas of Wilson’s disorder to focus on and the aspects of his life that it affected him the most. Though the film touches on Wilson’s depression, Winner notes how bad it got in real life. “”Til I Die” was the thing he did in the late ‘60s. It’s a great story in a sense because Brian was suicidal. He drove himself to a cliff, intending to kill himself and parked the car, looking out over the ocean moonlight and it struck him how tiny he felt; he felt so small and insignificant that he felt ridiculous about that fact. Instead of killing himself, he came up with this lyric…They give you a bit of it in the film… it was sort of one of these montages where they put several tunes together and they patched a bunch of them together into a collage. And “Til I Die” is in there.”

Wilson in the studio in the 1970s. By Brother Records (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brian’s father plays a significant part in the film. It suggests that Murry’s abusive relationship with his sons plays a role in Brian’s development of Schizoaffective Disorder. According to Claridge, this isn’t far from what doctors believe could be one of the causes of the disorder. He, along with his student at the time, Stefano Belli, wrote a paper based on Belli’s undergraduate thesis analyzing Wilson’s disorder and the links between his drug use, his father’s abuse, stress and creativity. “While child abuse is common in psychiatric illness, not all abused people develop illness and even fewer, psychotic disorder. But abuse might contribute to it in a psychotically-predisposed person, both as a general influence in making the person more vulnerable, but also in specific ways, as I think in Wilson’s case, through memories of specific abuse shaping the content of delusions and hallucinations.”

In other words, the stress created from years of abuse from his father, most likely was one of the first triggers of Wilson’s disorder.

“But the thing about Murry is what he did wasn’t just simply abuse. I think he was torturing his son,” says Winner, who gives examples that weren’t used in the film, such as Murry taking out his glass eye and forcing Brian to stare at the empty socket. There was also the time when Murry, very naked and drunk, jumped up and down on the dining room table and screamed “I am the king of this goddamned family” over and over again. Murry also forced Brian to defecate on a plate on the floor in front of his brothers and mothers as well as chained him up to a tree in the backyard as punishment for masturbating in his room. “Think about what that does to a well-adjusted normal child, let alone someone like Brian who has all these other challenges mentally… While it’s unrealistic to blame Murry Wilson for his son’s mental illness, certainly Murry’s abusive, drunken behavior exacerbated the situation, and caused Brian Wilson undue stress. On the other hand, Brian credits his father with certain types of ‘inspiration’ — in some instances, that inspiration came in the form of threats.”

And regarding that studio scene in the movie at the beginning of this article, there’s a recording online of a similar situation between Murry and Brian during a tracking session of “Help Me Rhonda” that gives a real-life glimpse into their relationship.

And then there’s Dr. Landy.

Though he can be credited with saving Wilson’s life at the beginning of his treatment, the opposite can be said by the end. According to Winner, “By most accounts, Landy both saved Brian’s life, while simultaneously causing him permanent damage by excessively prescribing excessive or giving him the wrong meds. But more insidiously, Landy seemed to be purposely pressing similar psychological hot-buttons that his father had years earlier as a means of control and manipulation.”

When you watch Love and Mercy, there’s no mistaking the passion Pohlad has for Brian Wilson and the condition that’s plagued him his entire adult life. Toward the end of the movie, after his time with Landy has ended, Cusack’s Wilson hears voices from the past — loud, angry, yelling voices from his father, from Landy, and from Mike Love — with who he seemed to be in constant battle with throughout the movie. As he blankly stares into space, he sees a vision of himself as a scared, little boy, then of Dano’s version and finally, the camera fixes back on Cusack’s older self. But these visions aren’t part of his disorder. These visions symbolize Wilson’s mental health journey and his road to recovery.

Brian had an amazingly horrible, dramatic life,” says Winner. “It’s mind blowing to think that it is true. But it really is. It was even worse than it appeared in the film…. I love the fact that more people will find out what a survivor he was.”

Not only will Love and Mercy educate the non-initiated on the genius of Brian Wilson and his music but also about the realities of mental health disorders in general.