NEW YORK – Wouldn’t it be nice, Beach Boys fans have thought for years, if they could wake up to find music legend Brian Wilson on the big screen? And to do so while he tangles with ghosts and a deliciously malevolent doctor – God only knows what we’d be with such a film.
Actors John Cusack and Paul Giamatti make just that kind of music in “Love & Mercy,” their tale of the Beach Boys pop tunesmith out Friday. In the unconventional biopic, directed by producer-financier William Pohlad and serving as the first major narrative piece on Wilson, the actor who once held a boom box up to America conjures up the famous Beach Boy, while one of the country’s preeminent character actors infuses Wilson’s tormentor, psychologist Eugene Landy, with a sense of anxious evil.
“The problem,” Cusack said, “was that no one is going to believe a lot of this was for real. It’s so much more bizarre than you could actually show.”
“This was not,” Giamatti added, “a man who was a whole lot of fun to play.”
As conceived and written by veteran director and screenwriter Oren Moverman (Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There,” most pertinently), the fact-based film intercuts two tracks of Wilson’s life. There’s Paul Dano as a young, pre-“Pet Sounds” Wilson pressing for bold arrangements as fame and family pressure begin to unravel him.
And then there’s the Cusack and Giamatti section, in which a 1980s-era Wilson is finally pulled out from the influence of Landy by a new girlfriend, the resolute car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks. Cusack’s Wilson appears long after Landy had gone from being a presumptive savior – in real life the singer had at first enlisted Landy to help with his recovery – to a captor. Wilson and Ledbetter are now married.
The effect is a powerful double helix: Audiences simultaneously watch a man making music as he comes undone, and watch him as he tries to put himself back together so he can make music. It is a rare sight in a music biopic to witness a giant bruised in such deft ways or able to dance with so powerful a force, as he does in the Cusack-Giamatti scenes.
The actors met for lunch on a recent afternoon in New York – Cusack flying in from his native Chicago to see Giamatti, who calls the city home.
Mainstays of Hollywood – their combined film credits can fill a lifetime of cinematic memories – the actors didn’t know each other before this movie. But they came together over the roles.
“Remember that Diane Sawyer clip I sent you,” Cusack nudged Giamatti’s shoulder as he reminded him of an interview with Landy.
“That was a total takedown,” Giamatti said.
In person, Cusack is more declamatory and Giamatti a little more tentative, a neat reversal of their on-screen personas. The “Say Anything” and “High Fidelity” actor says it was his abiding love for music that motivated him to take the part but also the chance to play such a complicatedly fractured man; indeed, for many stretches in the Cusack period of Wilson there is little music at all.
The actor does tint his performance with moments of screwball comedy: a scene in which his Wilson tries to tell Ledbetter about matzo ball soup or an elaborate runaround to avoid Landy.
Giamatti offers his own colorful twist on his character. There’s Svengali-like bite to Landy’s methods, which can involve such practices as approving Wilson’s friends’ visitation hours and forbidding the consumption of a cheeseburger.
Cusack said he interacted somewhat with Wilson, known for his politeness if not his chattiness. The actor got to know him backstage at some performances – the musician has been touring regularly in the past few years – and Wilson did visit the set. Cusack described the singer as “a bit of a Cheshire cat; like Dylan, he hides in plain sight a little bit.”
Ledbetter proved a somewhat more forthcoming resource, offering her experience with Wilson, including their bizarre first meeting in which Wilson entered a car she was looking to sell him and started spilling the details of his psychological captivity. Landy was clearly manipulating his patient (or enabling him – there was evidence the doctor would treat Wilson’s drug addiction by partaking with him).
But there was little documentation about the doctor, a shadowy figure who had few known confidantes. (He died in 2006.)
So Giamatti pieced together the character from bits he could find, learning from articles and one or two distant acquaintances of his brief early-career period in the music business as George Benson’s manager before he resurfaced as a cultish quack.
“There were these hours and hours of tapes I’d listen to,” Giamatti said. “And he’d just keep talking and talking, in these completely huge paragraphs. They were brilliant-sounding, but if you dug into them they didn’t make much sense.”
Cusack said he understood from his own career how an anything-goes creative environment could lead to bizarre consequences.
“Some of this sounded like Hollywood 101 for the ’80s,” he said. “I remember arriving at 17 and I had been in one movie and they put me up in the Chateau Marmont where Belushi had died not long before. And I saw Andre the Giant in the lobby with a satin jacket that said ‘Hell,’ and I thought, ‘Rock on.’ ”
He paused, “There was so much cocaine. Everybody knows that, but I don’t think they know what that meant.”
Giamatti said he thought the idea of Wilson as a lost music star looking for answers and a guiding figure was an understandable psychological reaction to massive fame – he saw parallels in it to the case of Michael Jackson and convicted doctor Conrad Murray and the burgeoning California self-help schools of thought.
“There were these movements at the time,” Giamatti said. “Self-help. Cognitive psychology. Landy was basically trying to change Wilson’s way of thinking, even if he did that by locking the fridge so his patient couldn’t have a cheeseburger.”