Love & Mercy is a beautiful portrait of a tortured mind, and an insight into the genius that led to some of the most beautiful and innovative music ever made. It’s also the story of how mishandled psychiatric care can destroy a person.
Eugene Landy, the man who controlled The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s life for many years, was a psychologist with innovative ideas. He came up with a theory involving “24-hour therapy,” an immersive type of treatment where talk therapy is available around the clock for people overcome everything from depression to drug addiction. The therapy involves controlling every aspect of the person’s life, which, according to Landy, included “physical, personal, social and sexual environments.”
He tried out his theories in rehabs and mental health clinics to varying results, but nothing was quite like the therapeutic program he worked out for Brian Wilson. He took on a salary of $420,000-a-year, and infiltrated every part of Brian’s life, including assuming legal guardianship of him, and controlling his work and his finances. Under Landy’s care, Brian was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When we finally broke free of Landy’s grasp, he was rediagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
How did Landy get so much control?
Brian’s first wife Marilyn called Landy after her husband had been depressed, detached, and virtually unresponsive for years. Landy had a reputation as a shrink to the stars, and she felt she needed to find someone who would go to Brian, instead of asking him to see someone. In fact, she developed a whole ruse with Landy, where for a while Brian thought Landy was coming to see Marilyn. One day, Marilyn says, Brian walked into the room while they were talking and asked for Dr. Landy’s help. “Something’s wrong with me,” he told Landy.
When Rolling Stone magazine did a feature about Brian in 1976, Gene Landy did an interview along with some of Brian’s family members. During their conversation, he bragged about his high fees, treating other celebrities, and what a great doctor he was.
When asked what Brian was suffering from, Landy got very cagey and replied that Brian suffered from “scared.” When asked to elaborate, he says Brian was living in a realm of fantasy because he couldn’t respond properly to being afraid. He also insisted that Brian’s state didn’t bother Brian or his children (which wasn’t true, Brian and his daughters were both deeply affected by his condition,) just his wife and other people around him. Although he uses the word “fantasy,” Landy refuses to explain what type of fantasies Brian was having, and even suggests that there was nothing wrong with Brian, just that he was hired to give Brian a “choice” between being in bed or not. “I was hired by Marilyn on the condition that I can do my thing, whatever it is. I’m working for Brian Wilson to have something he has not had, and that’s an alternative,” he says. “That if he chooses to withdraw and be scared, that’s as good as choosing not to, but to have the choice. And if Brian feels that he’s better and likes better sitting in bed, then goddamnit, ‘Here’s to you, Brian.'”
Landy assembled a huge team to treat Brian. There was a total of eight professionals including several psychiatrists and a nutritionist. Part of their focus was on getting Brian off drugs and getting his weight to a healthy level (at some point he was over 300 pounds.) Those are great goals, but the methods seemed a little odd. The Rolling Stone reporter was present when Landy yelled at Lorne Michaels and SNL cast and crew for bringing beer and pizza over to discuss a Brian’s musical appearance on the show. When John Belushi argued that it was just a friendly gesture, Landy snapped “Yes, but Brian blew his diet. He had five beers. So next time you’ll just have to drink coffee or nothing at all.” The reporter witnesses another incident where Brian recoils during a tongue-lashing from Landy after a social mistake. He also locked the refrigerator so Brian couldn’t get food, and would pour cold water on him to wake him up in the morning.
Brian grew up with an abusive father who yelled constantly, and even made him deaf in one ear from a punch. Growing up in this environment made it difficult for him to see that his situation with Landy was also abusive.
When the reporter asked Brian what exactly Landy and his team are doing for him, he replied, “Well, it’s basically designed to correct me from taking drugs.” He explains that Landy’s methods involve him being watched by bodyguards all the time so he physically cannot get his hands on any drugs. His desire for drugs hasn’t waned, though, and he event tries to score cocaine from the reporter.
Does Love & Mercy get Eugene Landy and Brian Wilson’s relationship right?
Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of the tyrannical and controlling father figure is chilling to watch. According to Brian Wilson, Giamatti’s performance is spot on. His wife Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks in the film,) who worked closely with the filmmakers, says that the finished movie really shook her up, but told The New York Post that the real Landy was worse.
“After I first saw the film, I had to just drive around for a couple of hours to clear my head,” Melinda said. “Then I remembered that what Landy did to Brian was even worse. You don’t get a sense of it in the movie, but it happened on a daily basis, for years.” As the movie suggests, Landy had inserted himself into Brian’s will, giving himself 70% of Brian’s assets if he were to pass away. The power-hungry psychologist even worked with Brian’s hired biographer on a book that was published before Brian got to see the final drafts. The result was a book that spoke very favorably about Landy and basically plagiarized the rest of the material about Brian’s life from previous biographies. Brian has recently been very committed to telling the most honest version of his life as possible; he’s been working with the producers of Love & Mercy for over a decade, and writing his own memoir due to be out in late 2016.
Eugene Landy’s son Evan Landy has spoken out about his father’s portrayal in the film, claiming that his dad saved Brian Wilson’s life and that the film is “revisionist history” from Melinda’s point of view. Evan, who was hired as part of 24/7 Brian’s care team, spent a great of time with him. He stayed up watching him all night to make sure he didn’t drop a cigarette on the bed and accompanied him to the movies and many, many meals. He admits that his dad was “flawed,” but felt that his father genuinely loved Brian and had his best interests at heart. “I think he absolutely loved Brian. I don’t think he would have invested that much time, energy with him if he hadn’t,” he said. “Brian was the never-ending topic of conversation.” Of course, having a person’s best interests at heart, and enmeshing yourself in their lives don’t really matter if the person isn’t actually being helped.
As for the movie itself, it feels very different from many biopics. First of all, it doesn’t try to be too ambitious as far as trying to cram in his entire lifespan. Sometimes trying to tell the entire story of a person’s life in two hours can be confining and paint a less true picture of them. Many rock biopics like to play up the myth of the rock God, glittering up even horrendous flaws or tortuous situations. Love & Mercy feels very intimate, and almost makes you feel as if you are inside Brian’s brain at times. It also narrows things down to only two distinct periods of Brian’s life, and in a kind of odd turn, uses two different actors to portray him. Paul Dano plays the young, madly-inspired Brian on the brink of losing control, and John Cusack rendered the broken and embattled Brian, who’s been beaten down by his internal mental illness and his constant external companions. Although the two actors only slightly resemble each other, their embodiment of Brian melds them together into a single believable person. The music is hauntingly cut together by Atticus Ross, a masterful effort that further aids the audience with melting into Brain’s beautiful and tortured world.
“The first time I watched it [Love & Mercy,] it was like a real test for my emotions. It portrays me so well that I felt like I was being pushed into the movie.” – Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson hears voices, mostly negative voices, and has heard them since he was 25 years old. Schizoaffective disorder means suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia (hallucinations, like Brian’s auditory hallucination, disordered thoughts, and “negative” symptoms like withdrawing) along with symptoms of bipolar disorder (dramatic and unpredictable mood swings.) His crippling depression and tormenting voices kept him mostly in bed for years in the 1970s, a time when he compulsively overate, consumed as many drugs as he could, and only left his house occasionally, at night, in his bathrobe. He constantly had people coming to his house, where his wife and two daughters also live, to keep his drug supply steady. His wife Marilyn desperately wanted things to change, wanted him to resume a workable and healthy life, and it’s a cruel irony that the person who was supposed to help took such advantage of the situation. After their initial period of working together in the 70s, Landy and Brian parted ways over a fee dispute, but Landy resumed his 24-hour care of Brian in the 80s after his marriage dissolved and it truly was his team alone with Brian at all times.
Brian did need help, he had trouble living, but his close friends and Brian himself says that he only truly got that help through the love and support of his second wife, Melinda. She helped set him up with better doctors who adjusted his medication and helped structure his life, which includes a lot of love and family. He was able to reconnect with his daughters Carnie and Wendy, (Landy told Brian it was best for him to stay away from his family, including his children) and Brian and Melinda have adopted five children of their own. While he used to feel that he had to hide his auditory hallucinations, he’s now open with everyone about his condition, including with the media.
In a 2006 interview with Ability magazine, he was very candid about his condition. “Now I get it [his depression] mostly in the afternoon. I dread the derogatory voices I hear during the afternoon. They say things like, ‘You are going to die soon,; and I have to deal with those negative thoughts. But it’s not as bad as it used to be. When I’m on stage, I try to combat the voices by singing really loud,” he said. “When I’m not on stage, I play my instruments all day, making music for people. Also, I kiss my wife and kiss my kids. I try to use love as much as possible.”
Brian has struggled every single day of his life since he first started hearing the voices, and before that experienced crippling depression. He still hears them even though he’s medicated, but his wife and friends help him out with the negativity, telling him not to listen to the constant barrage of words, reassuring him that the voices are lying, and they can’t hurt him. This outward reassurance seems to help him, and he says that he often speaks back to the voices himself. It can be discouraging, he’s said, but he still continues. When he has good days, he likes nothing more than to sit at his piano and play music, his favorite form of communication. “It’s all done through music; that’s how I explain it,” Wilson has said. “As a person, I couldn’t explain nothing. But with music, I can explain something.”
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