‘Love & Mercy’ probes creative discernment

“Love & Mercy” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Graham Rogers, Max Schneider, Erin Darke, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Diana Maria Riva, Fred Cross, Oliver Pohlad. Director: Bill Pohlad. Screenplay: Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner. Story: The life story of Brian Wilson. Web site. Trailer.

Learning selectivity can be challenging in almost any undertaking. That’s especially true if we lack the means to effectively sort through the many options available to us. In fact, without such a filter, we may quickly find ourselves overwhelmed, circumstances that can have devastating consequences, as seen in the engaging new biopic, “Love & Mercy.”

In the early 1960s, the Beach Boys made a huge splash on the American pop music scene with their distinctive California sound and catchy surfer tunes. The driving force behind the group was founder Brian Wilson (Paul Dano), who assembled the band with his brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Within a short time, the group’s popularity exploded, quickly becoming a national, and then global, phenomenon.

By 1965, however, things began to change. First, Brian and his brothers fired the group’s manager, their domineering, manipulative father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). Then Brian announced that he had tired of touring and wanted to spend more of his time in the studio, working on innovative new sounds. Clearly he was an artist in transition, but his emerging creative sensibilities told only part of the story.

Musically speaking, Brian began work on compositions for a bold new album titled Pet Sounds. He wanted to replace the kitschy surfer songs that had long characterized the band’s repertoire with a more intricate, more sophisticated, more heartfelt sound, as evidenced by pieces like the soulful ballad, “God Only Knows.” What’s more, the tracks on this LP included different instrumentation from previous efforts, such as the rich orchestration of the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, as well as inventive sound effects never before committed to vinyl. The album was a radical departure for the Beach Boys – and for American pop music in general.

However, while Brian thought he was on to something, not everyone agreed. His band mates (especially Mike Love) were skeptical about this new musical direction, a reservation borne out when Pet Sounds flopped commercially (despite critical acclaim and high praise from fellow musicians like the Beatles). Many thus began to wonder about the Beach Boys’ future. But, as quickly became apparent, this concern had to do with more than changes in the music; it also had to do with changes going on with Brian.

The new sounds that Brian had been envisioning seemed to come from out of nowhere. That’s because they flowed into his head effortlessly. While some might have welcomed the gift of such unsolicited genius, it became troubling for Wilson when he found he couldn’t turn it off. Ideas for new songs, as well as ideas for a range of other new projects, flooded his mind continually. That constant barrage of creative input, coupled with the fallout from experimenting with drugs and the impact of a host of other unresolved demons, took their toll on his mental state, leading him into a life of seclusion and a series of breakdowns that went on for years.

By the mid 1980s, a now-older Brian (John Cusack) fought to get his life back on track. He had hopes of reviving his music career, and he sought to re-engage with the everyday world of the living. He even met a new love interest, former model Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who was full of compassion for the struggling soul.

But, no matter what progress Brian made, it seemed as though he could never quite pull it all together. He was often anxious, sometimes despondent and occasionally paranoid. And, even though he was under the care of well-known Los Angeles psychotherapist Dr. Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti), it became apparent that the “treatment” Brian received was as much a part of the problem as his psychological ills. In fact, over time, it almost seemed as though he was backsliding into the despair that once left him bedridden for over two years. But Brian’s resolve was strong. And now, with a valuable ally at his side, he at last had an opportunity to make it all the way back.

As many artistic types can attest, being creative isn’t always easy. Indeed, as the Roman dramatist and philosopher Seneca the Elder observed, “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” And, as this film shows, Brian Wilson experienced that firsthand, though some might contend that more than just a “touch” of madness was involved.

So how did this boundless creativity drive him to the brink? In his exuberance to birth something new, Brian left himself open to let the inspiration flow. Others could clearly see this, too, such as Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed), who unabashedly labeled Wilson a genius. However, leaving himself open was also something that Brian did perhaps a little too well. With his artistic source tapped and no apparent filter in place to sort the incoming revelations, Brian became overwhelmed.

Those who practice conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we create our reality through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, understand the potency of those forces and the need to manage them effectively. This is especially true when it comes to the elements that shape our beliefs, namely, our intuitive and intellectual impulses. Making use of both of these sources in a tempered, balanced fashion allows beliefs to form that serve us well as we manifest our existence (and everything within it). But, if we allow either element to get out of whack, problems are sure to arise, and so it was with Brian.

Given the incessant stream of creative ideas that flowed into Brian’s mind (many of which seemed to appear entirely unsolicited), it’s apparent that he had no trouble accessing his intuitive side. However, with little or no mechanism in place to temper such unrestrained input – a deficiency in his intellect’s screening capabilities – there was nothing to stop or even curtail the constant flood of intuitive impulses. With his mind relentlessly racing from one idea to another, the “voices” in Brian’s head slowly began to overtake him – and his sanity.

Ironically, for most conscious creators, it’s the intellect that’s usually too strong, often easily overpowering the seemingly “less rational” intuition. In many ways, these reversed circumstances made Brian’s situation rather unusual (though the effect was no less debilitating).

Scenarios like this reveal the importance of developing our power of discernment, a key component in honing our conscious creation skills. It helps us sort the deluge of intellectual and intuitive impulses that come our way, helping us strike a balance in forming the beliefs we use to create our respective realities. And it comes in handy in virtually every aspect of the manifestation process, from the works of art we create to the relationships we forge with others and everything in between.

In Brian’s case, his underdeveloped power of discernment is readily apparent, most notably in his compositional efforts. However, it’s also present in other aspects of his life, such as in his relationships with authority figures. It’s obvious, for example, that he had his share of issues with his father, some of which were never resolved (even after he and his brothers fired Murry as their manager). The beliefs associated with the creation of his failure to do so, and his lack of discernment in recognizing their ongoing presence, carried over years later into his relationship with Gene Landy. The association between Brian and his therapist had many of the same dynamics as the one Wilson had with his dad, and the patterns present in his childhood were still in place in adulthood. These circumstances were thus destined to remain firmly entrenched until Brian developed the skill to see them in a different light. His experience in this regard should serve as a powerful cautionary tale to any of us conscious creators who are lacking in the same regard.

Discernment is more than just helping us spot what we don’t need; it helps us identify what we do, too, as long as we recognize its usefulness and how to employ it. For example, a well-developed sense of discernment would have significantly helped Brian realize what he needed to draw into his life to make his existence better. Chief among those needs was compassion, a trait to support him through his travails as he worked them out. But, in the absence of a working command of his discernment skills, instead of compassion he frequently drew criticism, as seen in the comments about his music offered by his father and his cousin and the sometimes-hostile therapy tactics used by Landy. For someone desperately requiring grace and compassion, criticism and abuse are the last things one needs.

This is where Melinda’s involvement proved invaluable. She provided the much-needed empathy to help him turn his life around. She helped trigger his sense of discernment, making it possible for him to begin to realize what he did and didn’t need in his life. But, perhaps most importantly, she helped him see that he was not alone, that he was part of something bigger that binds all of us to one another, a connection that enables us to get by, no matter what challenges may cross our paths. In that sense, she gave Brian what he needed most – love and mercy. If Brian’s experience teaches us nothing else, it should be that we need to develop the capacity for drawing compassion into our lives when we need it most, an invaluable lesson that can help us get through those tough times when everything seems irretrievably stacked against us.

When I first saw the trailer for “Love & Mercy,” I wasn’t especially impressed. Having been only a passing fan of the band’s music and sensing this release to be yet another film celebrating the recovery of a fallen celebrity icon, the impression the preview left on me was lukewarm at best. But, after seeing the picture, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Love & Mercy” is easily the best film of 2015 thus far. Director Bill Pohlad has pulled off a masterful coup with this picture, telling two compelling stories about the same character in one seamlessly interwoven vehicle. In doing so, the filmmaker took a number of chances creatively, such as casting two different leads to portray one protagonist at different points in his life, a risky move that pays off handsomely in the superb performances turned in by Dano and Cusack, each turning in perhaps their best-ever on-screen work. Pohlad also employed innovative tactics in the film’s cinematography, editing and soundtrack, significantly raising the stakes for what a biopic is truly capable of achieving.

The film does a fine job in other regards, too. Its character development is excellent across the board, but not just for the story’s lead. The portrayals of Melinda, Gene and Murry are all sufficiently fleshed out, thanks in large part to the great performances of Banks, Giamatti and Camp. The picture also avoids the temptation to depict its protagonist monodimensionally, showing Brian not only at his most pitiable but also when on top of his game as a consummate artist (exemplified best in the film’s recording studio scenes, where viewers are treated to views of a talented musician working magic with his peers). This combination of attributes makes “Love & Mercy” much more than what it might seem superficially – and a film well worthy of one’s viewing time.

Finding the right mix of elements we need to form the beliefs integral to the creation of our reality can be difficult, even under the best of circumstances. But, when we’re missing some of the components to make the process work, we may quickly find ourselves incapable of carrying on. It’s at times like that when qualities like compassion and discernment can prove invaluable. Let us hope that, if we ever experience such conditions, that we’ll draw to us the love and mercy we need to help us see our way clear.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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