A California Girl Meets a Beach Boy
Finally, Brian Wilson’s own true story will be brought into the daylight via a new biopic film Love and Mercy. The Beach Boys were America’s band just as the Beatles were to fans in England. It was truly an honor to meet the mystifying musical genesis behind the Beach Boys, such an incredible person whose music I admired and listened to on radio station KRLA in Los Angeles during the Beach Boys’ rise to success. Songs of surfing, cool cars, sunshine, and the California lifestyle were chart breakers.
A pivotal change in the band’s sound happened when Wilson (as shown in the film) had a panic attack aboard a plane while touring with the band in the 60s. He decided to stop touring to devote time in the studio. Here was when the magic started as Wilson wrote songs for one of the most creative albums that has ever been written and recorded in musical history. Pet Sounds is ranked second by Rolling Stone magazine on its list of 500 of the greatest albums of all time. In 2004, the Library of Congress preserved the album with the National Record Registry for being “culturally, historically, aesthetically significant and not merely a collection of singles, an album of unified work.”
I can assure you, whether you’re a fan or not, you will never listen to a Beach Boys song in the same manner after viewing the film. The true splendor of this film is its originators Brian Wilson and his wife, Melinda Wilson.
The title Love and Mercy is based on a poignant song written by Wilson and is directed by Bill Pohlad. The film is unique in structure and is divided into two distinct parts of Brian Wilson’s life: the beginning years of the Beach Boys, early to mid-60s (Paul Dano plays this role and looks remarkably like Wilson at this age.) and the 80s to early 90s with John Cusack as Wilson.
Most of us have some idea of Wilson’s breakdown, as it’s widely known that he became a recluse and hibernated in bed for two to three years. Shortly after that time, in 1976, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd created a video to celebrate Brian’s return to the Beach Boys. It was part of the “Brian’s Back Tour.” In the skit, they play California policeman who storm upstairs to Brian Wilson’s bedroom. They give him a citation for not making use of a public beach by not surfing. They drag him out of bed with his robe on and all of them go surfing together. Aykroyd says, “Okay, Mr. Wilson, here’s your wave!” Coincidentally, there’s a line in the film Love and Mercy in which one of the Beach Boys says sarcastically, “We don’t even like to surf.”
The band Barenaked Ladies chronicled Brian’s struggles and wrote the song Brian Wilson, which has the key phrase “Lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did,” released in 1992. Wilson himself embraced the song in 2000. He met with the band and rearranged the song so that its vocals are principally a cappella. As a tribute to Brian, the band now sings the first verse a cappella when touring.
Even though we may have a vague recollection of Wilson’s battles, most of us don’t know the gory details of the story. Psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti) in the film Love and Mercy began treating Wilson in 1975. The intense years were from 1983 to 1986 as his unorthodox method of twenty-four-hour therapy kept Wilson literally a prisoner in his home while a team of “watchers” followed his every move. Landy himself moved in with the musician. Wilson was over-medicated and routinely shamed for over-eating all while being financially and professionally exploited. Fortunately, his life began to change when he met a beautiful, sweet-natured car saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks in the film. Wilson’s story does have a happy ending, with love at the core.
Seated in the Smart Bar at Chicago’s Metro, (an apropos location as “The Metro” is a concert hall venue) Brian Wilson and John Cusack met with me and three other journalists to discuss the film on May 19, 2015.
John Cusack started the interview by telling us about the film’s beginnings. “He [Brian Wilson] and Melinda, his wife, had decided they wanted to make a film, and they developed a script for about ten years and had different people working on it and trying to figure it out. Then, Bill Pohlad, the producer and director who has made a lot of wonderful films, came on and they approved the script. I found out they were making it, so I called up and said, ‘I’d love to read for it.’ I thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I went after the part and was lucky enough to get it.”
Having lived in the Los Angeles area as a child myself during the band’s escalation to fame and less than eighteen miles from the Wilsons’ home on 3701 W. 119th Street in Hawthorne, CA where all three of the Beach Boys brothers lived, I was anxious to thank Brian for one song in particular: California Girls. The song helped me personally on two different occasions in my life.
I said to Brian, “First of all, I want to thank you for writing, Wish We All Could Be California Girls. I was a young California girl at the time, very young, but kind of awkward, so your song made me feel special.”
Brian Wilson looked directly at me, smiled and said, “Well, thank you.”
I continued, “It really did. I was wondering, have you heard that before? Have other California girls appreciated that song like I did, do you think?”
He said, “I think most California girls would identify with the Beach Boys’ music.”
What are the chances of thanking a celebrity that profoundly helped you out at such a young tender age in life? You can be sure I’ll treasure the smile on Wilson’s face for a very long time. And, in case you’re curious about the other time the song helped me out? It was when my father was transferred to Ohio and this “new girl” was instantly “cool,” simply because she was a former “California Girl.” [Thank you again, Brian Wilson.]
Brian Wilson was then asked which songs he enjoyed the best during his career.
Brian Wilson looked straight at me, smiled, and said, “I liked California Girls and Good Vibrations. Yeah. Those are the ones I like,” he said.
John Cusack was asked what songs of Brian’s he loved.
He answered without hesitation, “All of it. The continuation of the Phil Spector sound and knowing that he [Brian] had taken and transcended what Spector did. The harmonies, all the music growing up, all the music is so special. I think Pet Sounds and Smile was this creative apex that everybody recognizes. It’s not like I’m telling anything new, but those really, really blew my mind.”
Both were asked, “What are you trying to pursue now? What are you trying to say? What is your artistic goal? What is left unsaid, in a way? [This question has been paraphrased.]”
Brian Wilson said, “Well, for me musically, I plan to do a tribute album to the front-rowers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Paul McCartney. A tribute album, a double album with twenty-four cuts of solid tribute.”
John Cusack replied, “I want to make a movie on Edward Cayce, so I’ve been developing that for a long time. He was a guy who was a mystic and American spiritualist. I’ve got other things that I’m working on writing and doing. Mostly, there’s no reason for me to be in the film business anymore, unless I can do a film like this [Love and Mercy], about a guy like Brian or this level of thing. It’s very hard, you come in and out of vogue and fashion. It’s a real tough business to stay in. To play Brian was very special because Brian’s a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. Every artist feels such a conflict between the business side and the creative expiration of being an artist.
“If you think about The Beatles, they had many people to create new sounds. Then, there was one man [Brian Wilson] with one ear [Wilson’s deaf in one ear.] who did ‘all’ of those sounds for this extraordinary, musical, artistic explosion, achievement back then. It’s a great honor for me to be able to play and to try to capture a spirit of that.”
A question for Brian Wilson. “In the last fifteen years or so, it seems like you’ve been more willing to embrace your past, between this film and touring again, the box sets of sessions for Smile and Pet Sounds. I was curious, was there any one specific point where you finally realized, ‘Yes.’ You were finally comfortable with getting back, embracing the history that you created, which is still going on?”
“Well, I’m still creating. I’m not in the studio at the moment, but I’m still here formulating songs in my brain. It never went away. It’s always been there. It’s always in my head.”
John Cusack asked Brian Wilson, “Do you think doing Smile at the Royal Albert Hall and finally performing that, did that change something for you?”
“That made me very relieved when I heard how much the audience loved it.”
Next, I said to John Cusack, “I want to congratulate you on your mesmerizing role. You’re just fantastic as Brian Wilson. I read in Interview magazine that you were quoted as saying that every role is kind of a side of yourself and you said that’s why we get the part. How do you identify with Brian?”
John Cusack answered, “Thank you. I think in a very small way, what I said before, which is, you’re trying to create a mood of soul, intuition, and you have a feeling. It’s a very delicate thing and you have a lot of people around you who are trying to turn it into a product. There’s a pull there. I think that Brian has such a pure … I’m speaking of the guy who’s sitting right here, but I know he’s got a big, pure heart. I think, hopefully, at my best, I think I have a big heart too.”
John Cusack was asked, “In your career, you’ve played a number of real life people, like Nixon, Edgar Allen Poe. In this case, since you’re doing it with someone who’s not only still alive, but still a creative force and, at the same time, there’s also two people playing him. You have Paul Dano playing the younger version. Did that change how you’d approach playing this role as opposed to playing someone like Nixon? Granted, that was a small part, but in terms of an actor, to get prepared for the role?”
“Yes. I can talk to him, I can ask him questions. I got to talk to Melinda, his wife. I got to talk to all the musicians that have worked with him. Mostly, the only thing I didn’t know was his relationship with Dr. Landy. He [Brian] was gracious enough to talk to me about it. I had to ask him some questions that I think he might not wanted to re-lived, but he wanted to be true, so he did it.”
The final question was then asked by me. “Brian, I appreciated viewing the process of the Pet Sounds album, that we get to see that.” Just then, John Cusack had a burning question for me. He asked, “Have you ever heard the Smile Sessions and Pet Sounds Sessions? They’re amazing.”
I answered that I had not. John continued, “Get them. Go right now. Go right now. No. Download them today. They will blow your mind.”
I told him that I absolutely will and thanked him. John Cusack’s admiration and respect for Wilson was apparent. Actions are louder than words and, in Cusack’s case, he’s a supportive and compassionate guy. I also agree that he does have a big heart, just like Brian’s.
In concluding the interview, I continued my question about Pet Sounds. “I appreciated all the work and creativity that went into that. Was there any song that was easier to write than the others or were they all just really tough?
Cusack said to Brian, “What’s the one thing that came to you in fifteen minutes, the classic?”
Brian Wilson smiled and said, “God Only Knows.”
I was astounded by the answer, as Sir Paul McCartney has proclaimed the song “the greatest song that has ever been written.” I said, “God Only Knows? You’re kidding me?”
Brian Wilson said, “Came faster than any song that I’ve ever wrote. Thank you for the interview.”
Afterwards, I went over to Brian Wilson and told him the name of the city (Pico Rivera) where I lived as a child in California when his music was popular. He smiled and nodded his head. I’m still blown away by the fact that I was able to meet him and by the flood of emotions I’ve had in resurrecting those fond California childhood memories. People have said to me in the past that I must have the greatest job ever. After this day, I truly now believe that I do.
Sarah Knight Adamson© June 1, 2015
Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions, BrianWilson.com, Toronto Film Festival