“Love and Mercy” is the title of the new Brian Wilson biopic. Wilson, along with his brothers Dennis and Carl, a cousin, Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine, were the founding members of the 1960s pop super-group The Beach Boys. He was the creative force responsible for orchestrating their unique harmonies and key-changes, and many music critics have referred to him as a genius.
I saw the film last weekend. I knew it had gotten good reviews but still I was blown away at how much it affected me. Perhaps it was just the right movie on the right evening—but it impressed me as likely ranking as one of my favorite films ever. I love powerful, uplifting music and a true story that melds pain with triumph.
Brian Wilson stopped touring with the group in 1966, following a panic attack on a flight while returning from a concert. He suffered massive anxiety for years due to agoraphobia and sociophobia, and the pic brilliantly documents his struggles with both crippling anxiety, and the creative process. He was responsible for moving the Beach Boys from surf music to a richer, more interesting sound in the ground-breaking 1966 album Pet Sounds—think Good Vibrations.
The film shows his complex relationship with both a demanding, controlling and abusive father, and later with a doctor with the same traits. Murry Wilson managed the group for a while and at one point Brian says something to the effect that his dad “beat” him into making him a better musician. He also mentions that he’d lost 96% of his hearing in one ear because of his father knocking in the head so frequently.
After his breakdown in 1966, he lived as a virtual recluse, barely leaving his bedroom for three years. Eventually, he gets re-parented by an abusive and controlling psychiatrist, Dr. Gene Landy, who misdiagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. The diagnoses was based on the fact that he “heard voices.” The evil shrink gets legal guardianship of Brian, and as so often the case, Brian reprises his relationship with his parent in a similar rejecting but controlling relationship with his doctor. Brian is always seeking approval from both his father and his doc but rarely getting it—a heartbreaking portrayal of his almost childlike vulnerability.
Overwhelming generalized anxiety and panic attacks can cause a person to think they’re going insane. I’ve experienced some of this myself and have seen it a thousand times in clients I’ve treated over the years. The bottom line fear is that the sufferers think that they are dying. Their body’s neuro-endocrine system is in full flight or fight mode—and there is nothing to flee from or to fight—except perhaps fear itself.
“Fear Itself: The Walking Dread” and “Fear is the Lock ~ Love is the Key” are titles of previous blogs I’ve written on the topic. I believe an inability or unwillingness to properly metabolize, or deal with fear, to be the root of most psychiatric conditions. I’ve seen other anxiety sufferers misdiagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. I think that the “voices” are the mind’s attempt to compensate for, or to quell, the terror they’re experiencing. In Brian Wilson’s case the voices were likely that plus his creative muse.
I believe everyone experiencing panic attacks or massive generalized anxiety should see this movie. I’ve already recommended it to a few of my clients. In the end I found it uplifting. A spoiler alert is not needed to let folks know that the story has a happy ending. In the end, Wilson is saved by love—saved by grace.