For some artists, inspiration comes in disparate pieces that get magically assembled into a riveting whole. Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, welcomed and embraced those random, other-realm visitations. It was the broken pieces of his life he couldn’t glue back together.
Directed by Bill Pohlad, the biopic Love & Mercy jumps back and forth in time to tell Wilson’s story. It’s a recognizable tale of a tortured creative, but also an extreme depiction of every artist’s dilemma tied to giving Saturnine form and structure to what vividly lives, without boundaries, inside the psyche.
The younger Wilson (Paul Dano), a denizen of the 1960s, in California, became a global pop-music force, along with his band mates: brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. By 1966, Brian was feeling the pressure of stardom. He pulled out of a tour to stay at home and mess around with the jumble of sounds, like a collage, that were knocking around in his cranium. His goal? Only to create the greatest album ever made.
Although he doesn’t seem to have a competitive bone in his body, Wilson is keenly aware of the Beatles’ stunning innovations on “Rubber Soul” and tells the other band members, “It works like a whole – everything fits together.” And then, “We can’t let them get ahead of us,” promising his mates that, on their return, he’ll have stuff that will blow their minds. The film’s depiction of Wilson’s overseeing seasoned session musicians translating his sonic psychic scraps into the layered tracks that would eventually become the iconic album, “Pet Sounds,” is nothing short of breathtaking. “It works in my head,” Wilson tells his musicians, after instructing them to play musical snippets together in different keys.
The song “Hang On to Your Ego,” one of the tracks on “Pet Sounds,” is particularly relevant here, as Wilson proceeds to lose the grounding and centeredness that healthy ego-functioning requires. The movie doesn’t show Wilson’s final disintegration. The musician simply appears as a middle-aged man (John Cusack), whose every action is monitored by Eugene Landy (Paul Giammati), a psychotherapist who’s been appointed legal guardian to save Wilson from himself.
The presence of Landy represents the rules-and-boundaries skill sets which Wilson has lost over time. Now forced to ingest excessive amounts of medication to keep him in line and yet fuzzy enough to be controlled, the older Wilson clearly equates the behavior of his current captor with the brutality and power-mongering of his father, a producer, who demeaned and physically abused Brian at every turn. Saturnine parameters, so essential for an artist to flourish, here devolve into a jail cell that fuels Wilson’s self-criticism, self-doubt and lack of self-esteem.
It’s no secret that Melinda Ledbetter, a woman Wilson meets while he’s under Landy’s thumb and later marries, helps extricate him from the therapist’s clutches. But Landy’s hold on his charge is so nightmarishly consuming that the film, at times, behaves like a thriller.
Love & Mercy is a brilliant take on an artist’s internal chaos: a Neptunian force which can both foster creativity and transcendence and deter Saturnine self-mastery.
Archetype: Visionary. Mystic. Prophet. Artist. Musician. Victim. Manipulator. Abuser. Control Freak.
Astrology Archetype: ♄ ♆ (Saturn, Neptune)