Brian and Melinda Wilson on Unflinching Biopic Love & Mercy: "It Had to Be Factual"
Brian Bowen Smith/Capitol Records
Days away from his 73rd birthday this June, Brian Wilson ploughs ahead into his endless summer. The former Beach Boy’s 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, has just been released. He’s embarking on a world tour this month, and the Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brians young and older, has hit theaters, a film telling a deeply personal tale that’s far from fun, fun, fun.
And so it was that Wilson and his wife, Melinda, allowed some Q&A couch time a few days ago in their stately Beverly Hills pad — just doors away from Paris Hilton’s place. It was a rare occurrence. The last time they were interviewed together was some 10 years ago by Larry King.
Beyond being one of the most influential, groundbreaking songwriters of the 20th century, Brian is notorious for his brief, spitfire interview responses, and Melinda has little interest in the spotlight. Yet they are game subjects, reflecting on the unflinching portrait of their lives that Love & Mercy offers up, including Brian’s drug abuse, mental issues and years spent under the questionable care of the late psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy, who rescued his patient from the brink of self-destruction, only to take Svengali-like control of his life.
Which brings us back to the couch in Wilson’s music room. Outside it’s cloudy, inside there’s this.
You have five kids. Have they seen the film?
Melinda: Well, no.
Brian: Some of them have, some of them haven’t.
What did they think?
Brian: I don’t know, I didn’t ask them.
Melinda: They really like it. They didn’t know the Landy stuff that much. That’s a little ticklish to talk about with your kids. They were kind of like, wow … dad really went through that?
Did you explain to them what was happening in that period?
Brian: Yeah, I kinda had to tell’em a little bit about it. Landy was kinda strict. He medicated me, he manipulated me, you know?
You first met Landy in 1976. What would you say to the Brian of back then?
Brian: I would say, no thank you. Don’t need to go into a program.
Melinda: That’s really putting it nicely, honey. I would have used some bad words, probably. Some really bad words.
The film has a lot of dark moments.
Melinda: I had no idea how much until the first time I saw it and it was like, I didn’t know what to say. And Brian wasn’t with me cause I wanted to be the buffer in case it was just, oh my God. And it was like, oh my God. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I said, "Bill [Pohlad, the film’s director], I’ve got to go. I don’t know what to think." And I drove around the city for two hours.
Brian: It was tough to watch, it really was. But they did a great, great job.
Melinda, you had some input on the script. Were you concerned about revealing too much?
Melinda: No, I don’t think so, because from the get-go, when Brian and I talked about it, we decided if we were going to do it, it had to be accurate.
Brian: And factual.
Melinda: It needed to be factual or why do it? There’s been too many movies on The Beach Boys that weren’t factual, so why do another one of those?
Speaking of facts, the film depicts your first meeting at the Cadillac dealership where Melinda worked. Apparently she sold you an ’86 brown Seville.
Brian: Right! Right! Yeah.
Melinda: It was the ugliest car we had.
Brian: I liked it though. I chose that one cause I liked it. That one’s for me.
What did you like about it?
Brian: I liked the way it felt, behind the wheel. I just liked it.
Melinda: I have a different take on it. My take is, he liked it because it was the first one he saw and he didn’t have to go upstairs and traipse through 300 cars. That’s how little a car really meant to you at the time.
Brian: A car’s OK for me, you know? A car’s all right to drive. Not to look at, to get in it and drive it.
Melinda: You see what I mean?
Cars are good to write songs about, too.
Brian: Right, well I wrote a few car songs, yeah.
What happened to that Seville?
Brian: I had it for a couple years and then I bought, I can’t remember, I think I bought a Corvette. No, it was free.
Melinda: Yeah, you got a Corvette
Brian: A yellow Corvette.
Melinda: The Corvette was cool. The Cadillac was not that cool.
Melinda and Brian Wilson
Wilson family archives
What’d you think of Melinda that first day?
Brian: When we first met I liked her right away. She was a pretty girl, I thought she had a good voice, you know? I liked her.
Melinda: I liked the honesty that Brian brought into the dealership, because selling cars, not too many people are honest with you. You think it’s the other way around, but people come in just lying their asses off: "I can get the car for $5,000 cheaper down the street." With Brian he was just a breath of fresh air, for me.
Did you know who he was?
Brian: She didn’t know about The Beach Boys at that time. She didn’t know.
Melinda: Well no, I knew about The Beach Boys, but I didn’t know about you, who you were in the mix.
Brian: In the music world.
What was your first take on Landy, Melinda?
Melinda: He was a fucking asshole. He came into the dealership and I’ll never forget. He walked in [and said], “Who’s gonna wait on me?” and unfortunately or fortunately as it turned out it was my turn. And he ran me around the block for a couple weeks, then he announced he was going to go buy a Maserati. And he was just a creep. And the next thing I knew he brought Brian in.
In the film, Landy splits you two up for a period.
Melinda: He totally did.
Brian: Right. That’s right, for a while, yeah.
Melinda: From 1986 to 1989 we saw each other before Landy caught on that I was going to help Brian escape or whatever, and then he didn’t let me see him anymore. But Brian and I would see each other once in a while on the highway when Brian was running.
Brian: She would pick me up and we started to get to know each other, and about two years later we got married.
Melinda: You kind of forgot some of the years. I think it was ’92 when the conservatorship went down, Landy was ousted in ’92. In my mind we were done, until the day I almost ran over [Brian].
That scene in the film of your chance reunion seems almost too perfect.
Melinda: That really did happen.
Brian: No, not really, she swerved toward me. She didn’t run over me, no.
Melinda: What happened was he had a studio across the street and that’s when he still had body guards and he wasn’t supposed to smoke, so he’d gone across the street to a liquor store to sneak a smoke, and I was driving to work down Pico boulevard and he just stepped into the street and I did almost hit you.
Brian: She almost did, yeah.
Melinda: So there’s that angel that always sits on his shoulder. Not that I was going to run over him, but us getting back together, it was kind of fate.
Do you believe in God?
Brian: Oh, I have voices in my head, but they’re not God. But I do have voices, auditory hallucinations.
Melinda: He wants to know what your spirituality is. Do you believe in God?
Brian: My spirituality? I believe that God is music. Yeah.
So you still hear voices?
Brian: Yeah. Mostly it’s derogatory. Some of it’s cheerful, most of it isn’t.
It still affects you in a big way?
Melinda: How could it not affect him? Are you really serious?
Yes. I don’t think people understand the breadth and depth of it.
Melinda: They totally don’t, and it pisses me off. Especially like, he’ll be doing a concert, and I can tell. I can see the look in his eyes, his face, I can tell when they’re bothering him, and yet he just champions through it. He’s to be commended for that, in my opinion, and I hate it when people say he’s up there like a zombie sometimes, the expression on his face. Well, they would be too if they were dealing with what he deals with … It’s something that he’s going to have forever and it’s amazing that he gets through life as well as he does with these distractions.
What’s the actual diagnosis?
Melinda: Schizoaffective disorder, which is a manic depressive with auditory hallucinations. So Landy diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, which is not even close … he was always predisposed to mental illness, whether the LSD brought it on quicker they don’t know for sure. In his contemporaries there’s a lot of people that did far more drugs than he ever did and they don’t suffer from what he suffers from. I think his dad may have some of this going on, from what I understand, and it’s hereditary.
At least you quit smoking, Brian.
Melinda: Let me tell you a good one. When we first got married he was smoking, so it was maybe two or three days after we got married, I slapped a patch on him. That was it, no more smoking.
Brian: I quit. Finally quit. I took a lung X-ray, I was sweating it out. I thought I had cancer, and they go, negative. And I go, what do you mean negative? That means you don’t have cancer. Phew. Right.
Melinda: After finding this amazing guy I didn’t want to be a widow, so I was like, you’re not going to smoke anymore.
Brian, I read that in 1960 you were studying to be a psychologist at El Camino College in the South Bay.
What attracted you to that?
Brian: I don’t know. I just wanted to be a psychologist, you know? I liked the idea of wanting to be a psychologist.
Melinda: Did you ever really want to be one though?
Brian: Yeah. I wanted to be a psychologist, yeah.
Melinda: Wow. Why?
Brian: I don’t know, it’s way, way to many years ago, over 54 years ago so you know…
Melinda: If I give you a million dollars, can you tell us why?
Brian: No, 54 years ago? I’m not going to be able to remember nothing.
Melinda: Usually that bribe works. I never pay him off though.
Did you ever dream a song? Paul McCartney says he dreamt “Yesterday.”
Brian: Really? Whoa. No. I never dreamt a song. You mean have a dream about a song?
Melinda: Like wake up in the morning after dreaming about a song and go to the piano…
Brian: That happened to me a couple times, but I can’t remember where or when or what year. But I do remember that I woke up singing a song in my head. So yeah. I’ve had that.
Melinda, what’s your favorite music of Brian’s?
Melinda: Smile. When I heard Smile I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that he did that, because the other songs, while they were fun, they just weren’t deep like Smile. It just blew me away. If I would have been around then I would have encouraged that for sure.
Brian: What’s your favorite Beach Boys song?
“Let Him Run Wild.”
Brian: You like that? That’s good.
Melinda: Tell him your story about that song.
Brian: Well, I recorded it and I wanted to change the vocal.
Melinda: He doesn’t like it. He thought he sounded too much like a girl.
Brian: It’s too late. It’s too late to change it now.
Who makes you laugh?
Brian: Hal Blaine [the Wrecking Crew studio drummer] used to make me laugh. He was a funny guy. Back in the ‘60s when we worked with him in The Beach Boys, he had us laughing all the time 'cause he was such a funny guy. But uh, who makes me laugh? I don’t know. I don’t know who makes me laugh.
John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks at Brian and Melinda in a scene from Love & Mercy
Photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Did the film capture your sense of humor?
Brian: John Cusack definitely captured my sense of humor. Very well.
Melinda: Honest to God, John loves Brian, and you can tell by his performance. He listens to the Smile tapes all the time and he just has an appreciation for who Brian is and I think it really shows on the screen. A lot of people think that in some places in the film it’s almost comedic, but that’s his sense of humor, that’s how Brian is, and John zeroed in and really got it.
How do you describe your sense of humor?
Brian: Kind of wacky, off the wall. I wouldn’t know how to describe it.
Melinda: Just like his mom.
Brian: My mother was that way.
Brian: Dry. Yeah, yeah.
Your father Murry was abusive and controlling. In Love & Mercy, he’s shown hitting you as a child. Is there anything positive you got from him?
Brian: I learned how to have energy and spirit from my dad. He taught me spirit and energy, and get in there and kick butt kinda thing.
The Four Freshmen were a huge influence on you. Did your father take you to see them?
Brian: I saw them at the Coconut Grove in 1958 with my dad. We met them in their dressing room and my dad was like, nervous and I was nervous. I was really scared to meet ’em. As I remember they were very friendly with me.
You’ve been through a lot. Did life turn out well?
Brian: Yeah, I think I made the right moves.
Melinda: He’s the best person I know.
Brian: Like when I made records I think I made the right, appropriate kind of records when we made them, in their time.
Are you still exercising?
Brian: I go to a park and take walks for a half hour every day. I’m trying to stay young.
Do you get recognized?
Brian: Yeah, a lot. Yeah. People say, "Hi Brian, how are you?" and I don’t know who in the heck they are, I don’t know. I’m going to take an exercise right now.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.