Interview: Music Icon Brian Wilson Taps Into ‘Love & Mercy’

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CHICAGO – Singer/composer Brian Wilson, best known as the mastermind behind The Beach Boys, enters a room. His biographic circumstance and music history immediately fills that room. His life story is now brilliantly set to film, as he is portrayed by Paul Dano and John Cusack through different life stages in “Love & Mercy.”

Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, and directed by Bill Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” – derived from a Brian Wilson song title – is the story of two crucial phases in the songwriter’s life. The younger phase, portrayed by Paul Dano, checks in with Wilson as he puts together The Beach Boys’ masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” At this point, the dissolution of Brian Wilson as Rock Star is beginning, and as a result the older phase of his life comes into view, with John Cusack turning in a career-defining performance as Wilson, under the care of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Done with the complete blessing of the now 72-year-old Beach Boy, the film is a stark reminder of no matter who you are, we are all victims of our own circumstances.

Brian Wilson
Unbroken: Music Icon Brian Wilson in Chicago, May 18th, 2015
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Brian Douglas Wilson was a baby boomer born in California, the epicenter for his later pop song dreams. He grew up in an authoritarian household, run by his father Murry, which included his brothers – and future bandmates – Carl and Dennis Wilson. Blessed with a musical talent, Brian was pushed into the pop/rock scene of the early 1960s, with his father providing the push. “The Beach Boys” blazed onto the scene in 1961, with their first hit “Surfin’,” and followed it up with a string of hits that defined summer through the mid-1960s. The hits include “Surfin’ USA,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” “Fun Fun Fun,” “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Good Vibrations,” among many others, all within a four year period.

Wilson entered a darker period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with psychological issues, drug use and problems facing the world. In 1975, his wife Marilyn and his family enlisted therapist Eugene Landy, who helped Wilson gain some life traction, and get back into normalcy. After his divorce from Marilyn in 1979, Wilson began to rely more and more on Landy’s radical care, the peak of which is played out – in the mid 1980s – in “Love & Mercy.” As he slowly re-emerged after splitting with Landy, Brian Wilson has reestablished himself as one of the pre-eminent souls in rock history. got the privilege to sit down and talk for a few minutes with Brian Wilson, paired with John Cusack (who helps with the interview), before they did a Q&A for an audience watching a preview of “Love & Mercy.” As a man of few words at this point in his life and career, he is content to know his place in the firmament of universal joy. When John Lennon died, the meme was “how can he be dead? He kept me from dying so many times.” Brian Wilson is very much alive, and the energy of his spiritual songs have also kept us from dying so many times.

Brian Wilson, John Cusack
Brian Wilson and John Cusack Take Audience Questions at the Music Box Theater, Chicago, for ‘Love & Mercy’
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for Which time period in the film felt most acutely present in your soul when you saw the film, the young Brian or the John Brian?

Brian Wilson: It’s definitely when I met Melinda [Wilson’s now wife, portrayed in the film by Elizabeth Banks], and John and Elizabeth portrayed us. Just as you see in the film, I bought a car from her. That felt like it was there. How did you feel about seeing your father Murry portrayed again in the film, and what do you think actor Bill Camp captured in your father that was most remarkable?

Wilson: He captured the authority. My Dad was a very authoritarian person, and it was captured by the actor in the film. I thought he did a great job. If I can ask you to go back to the ‘Pet Sounds’ sessions right now, what is your feeling - as an artist - when you heard the album put together for the first time? Did you feel at the time that you achieved something that hadn’t been done before in popular music, and more importantly did it evolve the Beach Boys sound for you?

Wilson: We achieved a mellow rock album, not hard edge rock and roll, but a more mellow sound. Mike Love didn’t like it at first, but I kept telling him I wanted to experiment with something different, other than our car songs of the past. So as I played him more of the instrumental cuts, he suddenly said, ‘that’s all right.’ We laid down the vocals, and the rest is what it was. I recently saw a video of you and Paul McCartney performing ‘God Only Knows.’ In your friendship and admiration of Paul, and his friendship and admiration of you, what do you think you understand most about each other, as artists and working class boys who became rock stars on different places on earth?

Wilson: First, we were born two days apart in the same year. Paul was born on June 18th, 1942, and I was born on June 20th. We never got to know each other in the early days, but really admired each other’s work. When I created ‘Pet Sounds,’ Paul and the boys went to work and created ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ both albums speak for themselves. Paul is one of the greatest songwriters in the world, and I relate to him as a songwriter myself.

John Cusack
John Cusack as Brian Wilson in ‘Love & Mercy’
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

John Cusack: Didn’t Paul come in and participate in the ‘Smile’ sessions back in the 1960s?

Wilson: Yes, he helped us by eating a stalk of celery, which we recorded. [laughs] We recorded the sound of his chewing, and later gave him credit.

Cusack: I’ve always heard from Paul how much he and The Beatles were in awe of Brian, and what he accomplished. It was one of the greatest mutual admiration societies in music history. How difficult is it to see how people change once success comes along for a band. What did you find hardest about approaching that change in Mike [Love], Al [Jardine], even your brothers Dennis and Carl?

Wilson: For the most part, everyone stayed the same. They took to it graciously. We were never like ‘we’re the greatest group!’ That kind of attitude just wasn’t there, we stayed humble. Mike had a bit of an ego, basically he cooperated, but he would tell you if he didn’t like a tune. He loved the early stuff I wrote for him, like ‘Surfin’ Safari,’ ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Do It Again.’

Cusack: Did you get the feeling that the studio wanted you to make the same records, and didn’t want you to experiment further?

Wilson: There was pressure from the company, yes. In those days, if you were hot like we were, they wanted another album immediately. We made six albums in two years. As a songwriter, you’ve had to define love in many ways, and in many eras of your life. At this point, what is you definition of love personally for the soul you’ve come to, and is it something that you still can interpret in your songwriting art?

Wilson: I define love not so much through melody or harmony or lyrics or the song, but it is everything that comes together, that four-part blast that comes out of the speakers – creating more harmony – and in a way, love.

”Love & Mercy” continues it’s release in Chicago on June 5th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti and Bill Camp. Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, based on the life of Brian Wilson. Drected by Bill Pohlad. Rated “PG-13”

StarClick here for the interview with John Cusack for “Love & Mercy”

StarClick here for the interview with Al Jardine of The Beach Boys senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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