The lines between genius and madness blur inside the mind of Brian Wilson as he’s portrayed in director Bill Pohlad’s Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy, distributed by Roadside Attractions. Using sound, the film paints a beautiful and discordant picture of what Wilson hears in his head – the music and mania that make the man. Love & Mercy splits Wilson’s life into two distinct parts, the young Brian of the ’60s (played by Paul Dano) in the time surrounding the “Pet Sounds” album, and the middle-aged Brian of the ’80s (played by John Cusack) who struggles daily with reality. The two parts interweave like one of Wilson’s vocal harmonies, giving the audience an idea of how Wilson ended up over-medicated and socially subjugated by the imperious Dr. Landy, who controls everything from what Brian eats to who he talks to.
In the ’80s, Wilson finds salvation in the form of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks), with whom he falls in love. “The whole movie is about transitions. The soundtrack gives you the lush and beautiful, but it also gives you the precarious, and then the really heavy. By the end, you realize that this guy is off in space alone,” said re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins at WB Sound. “The sound design and music in this film work so well together that you don’t know which is which and that is a beautiful thing.”
In several scenes, Pohlad uses sound collages to tell the story of Brian’s mental experience. They are a combination of Eugene Gearty’s sound design, music by composer Atticus Ross, bits of production recording from sound mixer Edward Tise and actual Beach Boys session material, all braided together by Nicholas Renbeck at New York’s c5 Sound and spread out into the 7.1 surrounds by Jenkins. It’s hard to distinguish who did what in terms of sound, said supervising sound editor/music editor/dialogue editor Renbeck, but the final track is magical.
For the film opener – a sound collage that Renbeck calls “The Black Hole,” composer Ross pulled together original Beach Boys material, like stems from their recording sessions, snippets of their session slates and conversations, and found vocals from recordings like “Sloop John B.” On the dub stage at Harbor Sound, Jenkins and Renbeck spent hours panning Ross’s music stems into the 7.1 surround field, swapping out snippets along the way to create a build of harmony from chaos that descends into a manic cacophony. “We were well into the mix when Bill [Pohlad] came in with six hours of slates from “Pet Sounds,” just of Brian talking to the musicians. When we threw that in it changed the whole dynamic and we had to rework everything again,” said Jenkins. Renbeck added, “We would finish an idea and show it to Bill, and he would say, ‘Great, now how do we make it build more.’ It was one of those cues that we kept returning to. We’d take a break from it for a day or two, then listen to it again, and come up with a new idea to try out.”
Another exemplary sound collage happens during the “Caroline, No” session scene. After Brian’s father Murry Wilson (played by Bill Camp) brings in a tape of his new band, Brian retreats into the studio. The bass line from the new band’s song infiltrates the space, even when Brian puts on the headphones. With them on, he starts to hear parts of Beach Boys songs too, in a jarring jumble of repeated lines and distorted sounds. Ross combined both samples from original Beach Boys sessions and lines from the actors. Gearty’s sound design adds an eerie underlying tone of tape hiss, mic feedback, a tape machine rewinding out of control and sonar pings. “You feel the world crashing around Brian at this point,” said Renbeck. “The ‘Good Vibrations’ dinner scene, the headphones scene, The Black Hole cue at the front, and the scene with Brian in his bed close to the end of the film, are all points where Bill [Pohlad] was interested in building the soundtrack up to where it almost becomes overwhelming. Brian Wilson’s world is one of sound/music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, sometimes both. The film embraces that idea.”
Finding usable bits of recorded material from the ’60s can be difficult, but with the Beach Boys the opposite is true. “Brian had all those sessions so well documented and well preserved. It was this rich treasure trove of material. All the people involved with the Beach Boys really extended themselves to us. Anything we could ever want, more than we could want, we got. And we didn’t turn down anything when it came to the movie,” said Jenkins.
In addition to all the original Beach Boys resource material, Renbeck noted they had a wealth of beautiful production tracks from sound mixer Tise, who captured multi-track recordings for nearly every instrument and musician present in the “Pet Sounds” session scenes. “The actors playing the Wrecking Crew, and Paul Dano as well, are musicians. So they are playing exactly what you are seeing,” noted Renbeck. “We had multi-track recordings of the oboe players, the bass, the clarinet, the harpsichord, the horns… all of that is live production and it’s amazing.” Even when Dano is under the piano lid, plucking the strings with bobby pins, what we hear was recorded on-set.
Jenkins added, “Nothing major was added to production for those scenes; we did some guitar tunings and other small tweaks in the studios. In the sessions, Paul is singing and he’s conducting, and Eddie [Tise] was picking up all that stuff live. It was brilliant of Bill [Pohlad], on the directing side, to give people their creativity like that and then to be able to follow through on that when it’s delivered as a gift.”
Tise captured the vocals too. In the scene where the rest of the Beach Boys join Brian in the studio for the first time to start recording vocals on “You Still Believe In Me,” Renbeck noted they had all the actors singing and also the vocal stem and music stem of the actual Beach Boys song. Renbeck experimented with how to handle Dano’s vocals versus the actual Brian Wilson vocals, and the actors’ harmony versus the actual Beach Boys harmony. “I had to match sync of the original stem to that of the actors as close as possible, and then find a reverb that matched the one on the original Beach Boys vocal stem. I used a few tricks to match Paul [Dano]’s voice a little closer to that of Brian’s. Then we could decide where we should move from production into original recording.”
Renbeck presented several options to Jenkins, Pohlad and Gearty, who was also the effects re-recording mixer. In the final, they chose to have Dano’s vocals doubling Wilson’s. The combination produced a very believable scene. The same process was used for “Good Vibrations” and “Caroline, No.”
“You have this really pure production track and then we make the space a little wider,” said Jenkins. “We pull back and all the brothers hit the harmony and it was a ‘wow’ moment. To be able to go from that first thread of Paul’s production track into that lush harmony and then add music and transition into the final mixes of those Beach Boys songs was really the heart of the soundtrack.”
While they had been working hard as a team up to the “You Still Believe in Me” scene, Jenkins feels this is where everything came together in the soundtrack. “We really gelled as a crew big time at that point. We took creative license and tried to really capture the vibe. We got to remix ‘Pet Sounds.’ That’s a once in a lifetime chance. We honored it and we got to take some risks and do things on par with some of the most iconic sessions that were ever recorded. It was an extremely special experience for us,” concluded Jenkins.