Beach Boys film explores Brian Wilson's troubled life

Brian Wilson with the actors
Brian Wilson (seated) on the set of "Love & Mercy" with the actors who play the Beach Boys in the film, including Paul Dano, in the white shirt. Dano is one of the two actors who plays Wilson. Wilson and his wife, Melinda, visited regularly during shooting.
Francois Duhamel | Roadside Attractions

Bill Pohlad is a big name in Hollywood. As president of River Road Entertainment, he produced major movies, among them "Brokeback Mountain," "12 Years a Slave" and "Wild."

For his latest film, the Minnesota native took on another big challenge. Pohlad sat in the director's chair to make "Love & Mercy," the story of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind some of the Beach Boys' greatest hits. The movie, which opens this weekend, goes far beyond the music to explore Wilson's pain and the dramatic story of his life.

From the beginning, Pohlad said, "Love & Mercy" wasn't going to be a Beach Boys movie.

Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack
Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter and John Cusack as Brian Wilson during the 1980s in Bill Pohlad's film "Love & Mercy."
Francois Duhamel | Roadside Attractions

"It really was about this person Brian, both his creative genius and process, but also the issues that he dealt with," Pohlad said. "The mental, you know, challenges that he had and how he got through them."

For a while Wilson looked as if he had the world by the tail. He wrote a string of Beach Boys songs that climbed to the top of the charts. But even as he stretched musical boundaries, his behavior became increasingly erratic.

That comes through in the film. In one scene, a member of the famed Wrecking Crew session band asks why the two bass parts are written in different keys.

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"How does that work?" she asks.

"Well, it works in my head," Wilson replied. "It's all playing in my head: the orchestration and the five vocal parts. I think it's going to work. Let's try it."

Wilson was inspired, but he was also suffering. Stress, overwork and drug use resulted in what doctors later diagnosed as a bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

Bill Pohlad
Bill Pohlad is well known as an independent movie producer with his company River Road Entertainment which won acclaim for such films as "Brokeback Mountain" "Ten Years a Slave" and "Wild." With his new film "Love & Mercy" Pohlad is directing, an occupation he says is his first love.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"He hears voices," Pohlad said. "Even to this day he admits he hears voices. He does hear music as well."

Eventually Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and went into seclusion. He spent years in bed. By the 1980s, he was in the care of Dr. Gene Landy, a psychotherapist. But their relationship was complicated and unhealthy, leading Wilson's family to take legal action against the doctor.

Wilson escaped after his family and Melinda Ledbetter intervened. He later married Ledbetter, whom he met in a Cadillac salesroom. They cooperated in the making of the movie.

Pohlad said he wanted to avoid making a standard biopic, and that led to a series of creative choices. First, he decided to focus on just two parts of Wilson's life: his time with the Beach Boys in the 1960s and his emergence from seclusion in the 1980s.

To develop his creative idea, Pohlad had two different actors play the same character.

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson
Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in the 1960s in "Love & Mercy."
Francois Duhamel | Roadside Attractions

Paul Dano portrays the 1960s version of Wilson and John Cusack plays the singer in the 1980s. Pohlad said he deliberately kept the actors separate while making the film.

"I kind of went against logic and said, 'No, we're not going to coordinate them. They are going to find their own Brian Wilson,'" he said. "They never even met until, I think, one of the last days of Paul's shooting."

Pohlad said Dano prepared for the role by learning how to play Wilson's music and listening to raw tapes of the singer recording the classic "Pet Sounds" album. Cusack spent time with Wilson.

"Love & Mercy" doesn't flinch in showing the highs and lows of the musician's life.

"I hope that people come away from the movie thinking as much about the mental health aspect and people in their lives that they might meet as they do thinking about Beach Boys' music," the filmmaker said.

Pohlad, whose family owns the Minnesota Twins, said he'll continue work as a producer, which he enjoys. But he hopes to direct again.

"There is no question that directing is my first love; it's where I get the most fulfillment," he said. "I'll be super lucky if I get to make another film like this."