Brian Wilson, Paul Dano talk ‘Love & Mercy,’ Beach Boys music, mental illness

Paul Dano, Brian Wilson, and John Cusack pose for a portrait during press day for "Love & Mercy" at The Four Seasons on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews Brian Wilson & Paul Dano

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — There’s a fine line between mental illness and musical genius.

That’s the tightrope walked by the year’s best movie you never saw, “Love & Mercy,” a fantastic indie biopic about Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who penned more than two dozen Top 40 hits.

Wilson joined his wife Melinda, director Bill Pohlad and actor Paul Dano at a mental health summit hosted by The Campaign for Changing Direction Thursday at the National Press Club in D.C.

Wilson’s advice for fellow sufferers is simple: “Take it one day at a time.”

His wife elaborated, saying it’s important for folks to discuss their mental health issues publicly.

“They have to tell people what they’re going through instead of just doing it alone,” Melinda tells WTOP. “They need to seek support and help just like they had any other disease. For some reason (in) our society, it’s a stigma. … One in five people are suffering. That’s a lot. It’s everywhere. Not only that, it’s hereditary, so it will continue and continue with new generations. So we have to talk.”

A film like “Love & Mercy” is a great place to start. Written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, the movie is directed by Pohlad, who returns to directing after producing a number of films on pressing social issues. “Brokeback Mountain” (2006) tackled gay rights, “12 Years a Slave” (2013) tackled racial injustice, and now “Love & Mercy” tackles the subject of mental illness.

The film covers Wilson’s darkest hours, from an abusive father who damaged the hearing in one ear, to auditory hallucinations sparked by past drug use. The movie suggests that Wilson literally picks up “good vibrations” from his surroundings, pulling song ideas from a higher realm.

“From God,” Wilson tells WTOP. “It comes out of my heart. I have a feeling, and that feeling guides my hands along the keys. Then I just start humming a melody and then I scribble out the words.”

Those hands wrote countless hits: “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “In My Room,” “I Get Around,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Barbara Ann, “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “God Only Knows,” which Beatles alum Paul McCartney called the best song of all time.

“I actually couldn’t believe that he thought that,” Wilson says, noting the irony of the song’s inspiration. “I had just come off listening to ‘Rubber Soul’ by The Beatles. I went to my piano and I started writing ‘God Only Knows’ and I said I’m gonna make an album just like ‘Rubber Soul.'”

Wilson tells WTOP his personal favorite is “California Girls,” cowritten by Wilson and Mike Love.

“Mike’s voice, the way he sings, unbelievable singer,” Wilson says.

Yet it’s Wilson who remains the star of the movie, which tells parallel tales of Wilson at two different ages. One storyline finds Paul Dano portraying Wilson as a young man at the height of the Beach Boys, while the other casts John Cusack as Wilson later in life as he wrestles with therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and falls in love with his future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).

“I felt very close to the movie because the actors who played me, played me very well,” Wilson says. “Paul Dano absolutely captured the way I produce records. He even sang like me.”

Dano tells WTOP he first heard the Beach Boys as a kid riding in the car with his parents, but his love for the group evolved from catchy childhood tunes into a higher appreciation of their artistry.

“I remember getting into ‘Pet Sounds’ probably late high school, early college, and being surprised that was not my memory of kids Beach Boys that I knew,” Dano says. “Then there’s a third tier for me, which is like obsessive fandom now, which is from spending months and months listening and learning to play the piano and learning to sings these songs. … Oh man, I love, love, love it.”

In fact, Dano intentionally waited a while to meet with the real-life Wilson.

“I immediately felt with Brian that capturing his spirit or trying to get a bit of soul was what was most important, not the external or any sort of mimicry,” Dano says. “He really felt like a special human being to me, so I wanted a lot of time where I just took in the music and did the other research I had to do. … They were in their 20s when they were doing this so there’s a lot of people I met with who worked with him back then who are still alive, because they were so young!”

The 31-year-old Dano knows exactly what it’s like to be a talented 20-something, having rattled off “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), “There Will Be Blood” (2007), “Prisoners” (2013) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) — all before hitting 30. He shared his rapid-fire memories of these seminal roles:

1) “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

“Learning. Being the young man in a van full of some beautiful actors. I was thinking about, boy, how am I gonna pull this off and just trying to learn.

2) “There Will Be Blood” (2007)

“Fire. A fever dream making that movie. Desert, sweat, Daniel (Day Lewis), Paul (Thomas Anderson), two of the best, ballsiest people you could work with. You just gotta throw yourself in and go for it.”

3) “Prisoners” (2013)

“Fear. That was scary. Honestly, to be in bed and reading about trauma or riding the subway, it’s just not what you want to daydream about. So that one was particularly scary.”

4) “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

“Tough. That’s one of those funny things as a person where you go, well you know, I’m certainly not this character in the world, but I’m contributing to a story that hopefully has a place in the world, so you sort of do your part to be a part of something, which is a funny compromise.”

5) “Love & Mercy” (2015)

“Joy. The music. I couldn’t love it or Brian more.”

Ditto. “Love & Mercy” is easily the best movie so far this year. Book it, Dano.

★ ★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP.