Hendrix, Morrison and Lennon make up the holy trinity seen on hipsters’ retro T-shirts, but Brian Wilson should, by any measure, be accorded the same ultimate cultural accolade. As the heart and soul of the Beach Boys, he was responsible for some of the greatest songs in the canon of 60s popular music (Pet Sounds remains a timeless, sublime album) and Bill Pohlad’s bio-pic shines a warts-and-all light on the tumultuous period of his most memorable output and its psychotic aftermath. Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson, an artist who is driven to transcend the expectations of fandom by following the uncompromising demands of pure inspiration, and John Cusack is the man who has notoriously spent two years in bed, unable to cope with his demons and under the malign influence of bullying therapist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti in an extraordinarily despicable characterisation). First and foremost, Pohlad lets the music speak for itself, with jump cuts of the band during the time of their classic Top 40 hits, then Brian in the studio with session musicians while the rest of the band is on the road, recording works of previously unattempted sophistication – these are tremendously eye-opening scenes.
Interspersed is Cusack’s Brian, a virtual slave to the manipulative Landy, having jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the maltreatment he received at the hands of his overbearing, abusive father. The woman who dragged Wilson from the mire was his second wife-to-be, Melinda – and what a treat it is to see Elizabeth Banks in a serious part. If there is any carping criticism to be made, I would complain that Cusack, excellent though he is as the basket case unable to cope with everyday life, looks nothing like the older Dano, much less Brian Wilson himself. But as a study of how the creative process is so irrevocably influenced by the impact of external forces on a personality that needs, above all, love and mercy, Pohlad has presented a movie of rare insight.