Have you seen the official trailer for Love and Mercy? The one that starts with a shot of Brian Wilson’s shoes on the floor of the showroom of the Cadillac dealership? It’s a fantastic, two-minute piece of work; almost seamlessly pairing dramatic shots from the film with unforgettable hooks from the Beach Boys biggest hits. The first bit of sound you hear in this trailer is the first word of the song “Good Vibrations.” What is that word?
In moments a spark passes between the disheveled Wilson (John Cusack) and the bushy, bushy blonde saleswoman and Wilson’s doctor intervenes and asks the pretty girl if she knows who the man she’s been talking to is. “This is Brian Wilson,” Dr. Landy announces. “Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.” The salesgirl’s response is, again, one word.
That is first-rate movie production. That is great storytelling.
But did you also see Brian and Melinda on The View when they appeared this past spring to promote the movie? Whoopi Goldberg had a real grasp of what a giant she was dealing with in Brian Wilson and showed some sincere personal appreciation for his music. About halfway through the interview, she mentions the song “Sloop John B.” At that cue the song starts playing in the studio where they are sitting. Just as those first few unmistakable flute notes sound, someone on the stage utters a single word.
I don’t know if it was Brian or Melinda or Whoopi or the other hostess there on the stage. It doesn’t really matter. The reaction was obviously spontaneous and genuine. It’s the same reaction that almost everyone has had when one of those three-minute sonic masterpieces of his comes on the radio. Maybe you’ve been driving for miles, listening to ho-hum pop oldies for an hour or two and then you hear the unforgettable harp swirls – the first notes of “In My Room.” Your reaction? Same as everybody else’s.
What does that little word mean? Well, a lot. It means recognition. It means agreement. It means pleasure. It signals that the speaker is vibrating to the tune of what they are hearing or seeing; saying to him or herself: “This is the real thing; this hits the target.”
It must have been what Brian Wilson said, at least to himself, when he first met Melinda Ledbetter at the Cadillac dealership. Ahh. This is it. This is the girl I’ve been dreaming and writing about for twenty years. It was what I said to myself when I watched Elizabeth Banks play her role in Love and Mercy. Not that she was the girl I’d been dreaming and writing about (I’ve already found her) but that this girl is the girl that Brian has been dreaming and writing about. I just knew that he would love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight played upon her hair. Whoever it was that did the casting for this movie must have seen it that way, too.
There has been plenty already written about this wonderful movie. Lots of sincere and deserved praise for how faithfully and affectionately the film treats Brian and his magic music. One reason to go and see the film while it’s still in the theaters is the quality of the sound. The music lifts you out of your seat. I suspect that Beach Boys records are selling very well in the wake of this movie.
But maybe not enough has been said about this: the real hero (heroine) of the Brian Wilson story is Melinda Ledbetter. If not for her, we would very likely have had a very different ending to the story. How familiar we pop music fans are with that other ending.
In Christianity Today, one reviewer wrote that the movie had a little too much “love conquers all in it.” Well, can the screenwriters be forgiven for such goody-goody sentimentality when, after all, they are dealing with a true story and that is what actually happened? And don’t give me any business about there being “ragged edges” to this story that the movie doesn’t include. There are always ragged edges to any story, this side of Jordan. What happened in the movie – and in Brian Wilson’s life – is that love conquered. All of the things that the beauty Wilson wrote about and that Melinda possessed and that Elizabeth Banks so convincingly portrayed – all of the things that beauty promises and points to: sensitivity, trustworthiness, purity of heart – everything that beauty promises, Melinda Ledbetter delivered.
Brian Wilson knew about disappointment:
Where did your long hair go
Where is the girl I used to know
How could you lose that happy glow
Oh, Caroline no.
Who took that look away
I remember how you used to say
You’d never change
But that’s not true
Oh, Caroline you
Break my heart
That was Brian Wilson’s song. But thanks to Melinda, it was not his destiny.
And thanks to Elizabeth Banks, I now know the story. Thanks to her subtle, nuanced and convincing portrayal,
I totally get it. I see what happened. What a wonderful, happy story.
Brian Wilson deserves all of the accolades now coming to him. He has my thanks for stirring my heart and imagination throughout my life. Hats off to brother Bri.
But Melinda Ledbetter deserves a crown.
And Elizabeth Banks deserves an Oscar.