It’s the warm, Californian summer of 1963 … beaches, happy times and surfing … the sweet melodies and effortless harmonies of the Beach Boys fill the air waves. These are wonderful, carefree, hopeful teenage times. The Beach Boys are riding high on their own wave of popularity and their music is gold. Each song is the creation of Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano), the most talented of the musical Wilson brothers – they are Dennis (by Kenny Wormald) and Carl (by Brett Davern) with their good friend Al Jardine (by Graham Rogers) and their cousin, Mike Love (by Jake Abel) – these are The Beach Boys. Happy, summer songs pour out of Brian in a rich creative stream – each one received with adoration by their global audience. They are successful and want it to last forever.
Creativity for Brian is an instinct – he can’t make it happen, he doesn’t have to – it happens to him. He’s young and happily married to Marilyn (by Erin Darke). But he’s not the type to soak up audience adoration, so endless touring and live performances are no drawcard for him – in fact the bright spotlight of fame and the pressure to “keep making hit records, son …” from his bully father cause him major anxiety. As months pass, the Beach Boys keep making music – but Brian spends more and more time in the studio. The band reluctantly departs for their tour of Japan without him – but he promises them a whole suite of new music when they return. Brian’s focus turns inwards, his creativity changes direction – he no longer produces happy, poppy, surfing tunes – they are now innovative and moody pieces. He starts to rely on medication to keep the voices at bay and help him distinguish reality from hallucinations. When the band returns, they eagerly listen to his new offerings – but their shock at the state of him and his latest music is clear – this is “Pet Sounds” … complete with his dogs Banana and Louie, singing backing vocals. When the boys’ father dies, Brian gets worse and becomes a patient of therapist Dr Eugene Landy (by Paul Giamatti), who takes a controlling hold over his life – his activities, his friends and … his medication. By the 1980’s, Brian (now by John Cusack) lives in a stupor – barely able to function, totally dominated by Dr Landy and his methods. But he somehow manages to maintain a relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (by Elizabeth Banks). But as their connection grows and they marry, she is alarmed to discover the way Dr Landy manages to control Brian and in an act of pure love, she bravely stands up to his domination.
It is great to revisit the fabulous, happy music of the Beach Boys throughout this movie. The story of Brian Wilson‘s life, though, is not so happy. The mental illness and drug-induced haze is depicted very well by both Paul Dano in the 1960’s and John Cusack in the 1980’s. They are both great here. To me, there’s something very “Bill Murray” about John Cusack’s performance. Paul Giamatti’s performance as Dr Landy is seedy, creepy and just right for this dreadful character and Elizabeth Banks’ sassy and tough Melinda Ledbetter is great. It’s a good movie.