Brian Wilson, as he himself has sung, just wasn't made for these times. Or any others, for that matter, which is part of the reason his music has remained so timeless through all of his breakups, breakdowns and breakthroughs.
Forgoing the clichés that weigh down most celebrity biopics, the forthcoming Love & Mercy aims for something much more poetic and profound. The film shifts back and forth between a perfectly cast Paul Dano, as the young musical genius behind the Beach Boys in the mid-'60s, and John Cusack as the after-the-fall Wilson, who's being kept under constant surveillance by since-discredited therapist Eugene Landy (a role played with disturbing intensity by Paul Giamatti).
Much of Love & Mercy centers on the post-surfer era of Wilson's two masterpieces — Pet Sounds and its shelved successor, Smile — which found his artistic vision expanding even as his psyche and support system unraveled.
Wilson's "God Only Knows," his father insists in the film, is not a love song, but a "suicide note."
Meanwhile, Brian's cousin and bandmate Mike Love (Jake Abel) is shown arguing that the band needs to get back to its origins: "I don't care how many car horns and bicycle bells, and jingle jangle or whatever you put in there, they're not gonna buy something depressing like that."
And while Wilson's shift from beach anthems to baroque pop reportedly made even The Beatles jealous, that endless specter of fun in the sun continued to loom large over him. "We're NOT surfers, we never HAVE been, and REAL surfers don't dig our music anyway," he insists, pounding on the recording console, to no avail.
Through it all, Love and Mercy boasts an air of authenticity, especially in its studio scenes. That's due, in large part, to the efforts and expertise of Darian Sahanaja, who served as the film's supervising music consultant and coached Dano so well in all-things-Brian that an Oscar nomination seems almost inevitable.
The co-founder of an L.A. power-pop band called The Wondermints, Sahanaja has played with Wilson for the last 15 years and joined him on the Beach Boys' 50th anniversary tour. He also co-helmed the completion of the lost Smile album, which would win Brian Wilson his first Grammy Award.
In the following interview, Sahanaja provides an insider's view of the film and the artist whose singular vision and legendary eccentricity have made him one of music's most celebrated geniuses.
Indy: So when you first met Brian, were you one of those guys who knew every single note of Pet Sounds?
Darian Sahanaja: Well, um, not really. Actually, when I got into The Beach Boys, I was a little kid and I heard "I Get Around" on the radio and it blew my mind. And I thought it was a new band. [Laughs.] So I got Endless Summer, which was one of the very first albums that I bought with my own money, and I remember looking at the songwriting credits on the label and thinking, "OK, this B. Wilson is on everything, so he must be in the Beach Boys. And then I'm looking at G. Usher — is he a Beach Boy?"
But not M. Love.
No, I think that was before he was able to sue his cousin so he could get the credit back.
Which is part of what led Brian Wilson fans to think of him as the Antichrist.
Yeah, they tend to demonize him. You know, he's not a perfect person. But when I toured with him ...
On the reunion tour?
Right. And he was pretty nice and sweet to me. Maybe he just didn't see me as a threat, I don't know. But I think all of this stuff between Brian and Mike is more about the camps that have surrounded them over the years. But Brian and Mike, they love each other. Mike will only have great things to say about Brian, and he's always quick to credit him as the genius that he is.
And, you know, all those guys, they were kind of these hicks from Hawthorne, you know what I mean? They really are. And then they became very, very popular and rich at an early age. And, you know, that can mess anybody up.
So I've watched the film a few times, and really thought to myself, does this further demonize Mike Love? And, you know, some will say it does. But I think there's nothing he's saying that a lot of us wouldn't be concerned about in that situation. We would probably be thinking, "Wow, what is Brian doing? Why is he doing this?"
And "how can we stop him."
Right. Or at least question him along the way. Unfortunately, it was the lack of support — and, you know, some mind-altering trips that he had — that sort of derailed the whole Smile project. His infrastructure was just falling apart, and he just decided he couldn't follow through.
A lot of people have their theories about why Smile didn't happen, but I just felt like he didn't have the love, you know?
What was the scope of your involvement in the film?
Well, pretty much my biggest contribution was all the musical segments that you see in the '60s half of the film. When they cast Paul Dano to be the young Brian, I got a call from the producers, who were trying to figure out the best approach to help him research the part and get some musical training. So they asked my opinion, you know, "Should we hire him a piano teacher? A vocal coach?" And my main concern was that, since Brian was never formally trained, if Paul was taught the scales and all that, he would have to unlearn things in order to play the role.
So Paul actually sings and plays the music? That seems kind of impossible.
I know, I had no idea, and neither did the producers, about what the potential was there. The two of us met up in this small music shop in Brooklyn that had a little piano room, and he was exactly as I'd hoped he'd be: very sensitive and somebody you could tell was really into Brian.
And it turned out he had a pretty darn good voice. It just need to be groomed to be as close as possible to Brian's phrasing. And since he didn't read music, I ended up making these sort of diagrams of the piano keys, and it was like, "Put your fingers here."
Did you have to do the same with John Cusack?
Well, no, since John was playing the late-'80s Brian — when he was under the watch of Dr. Landy and meeting [his future wife] Melinda — there was hardly any music in those scenes.
There's one scene where he sits at the piano and plays, and they had one of my friends be the piano double. And then there's another cheat shot of him reaching down to play, and I had to go and play that piano part. Which is fine for that. But when it came to the '60s stuff, there are just so many scenes of musicians actually playing. And that's what you actually hear and see.
One story I've heard is that, back when Landy had him on that strict health regimen, Brian just went missing from the studio one day. And so they drove around to his favorite haunts and found him in one, hiding in the back booth hunched over a cheeseburger. And it just sounds so childlike, in a way that's incredibly poignant. Is there a personal side to Brian you've seen that might differ from the public perception?
Well, if that's the public perception — what you just described — then that's absolutely true. He loves food, he's very immediate, he's very impulsive and anxious. And he does seem like a child. You know how kids in public, even if they're hiding behind their mother's leg, will just keep staring at you? That's Brian.
We were in the dressing room at this fundraiser in New York, and Don Henley and Timothy Schmidt from The Eagles walked in. And Timothy was very nice, but Don was just kind of aloof and walking around the room. And finally, after a few minutes of chatting, Don pulls out a copy of Pet Sounds on CD that he wants Brian to sign.
So Brian grabs it and he signs, "To Don, thanks for all the great music." And he's handing it back to Don, but before Don can take it, he grabs it back and he crosses out "great" and puts "good music." [Laughs.] And the thing is, there's no irony there. He's not being funny. He's really thinking, "I wrote 'great,' but I don't think it's great. But it's good. It's good music." And he handed it back to Don, and it was perfect.
Having worked so much with Brian and his songs, how do you view the connection between that personality and the music itself?
Well, he's simple and complex at the same time. You hear these songs and you just go, "OK, let's sing along." But then, if you have to sit there and figure out the chords and the harmonies, it's like, "Oh, these are not exactly jammable songs."
Was that true even with the early Beach Boys stuff?
Not with things like "Surfing USA," which was based on Chuck Berry songs. But on something like "I Get Around" or "The Warmth of the Sun" and even "California Girls," there are so many chordal shifts. Yet they come across so effortlessly and they connect with the masses.
And that's part of the genius of Brian Wilson. He's one of those rare artists that creates in a bubble — he's still that guy in the bubble — but somehow his art has managed to touch many, many people. And that's very rare.