AUSTIN - An actor, a director and a legend sit around a table. The actor, John Cusack, and the director, Bill Pohlad, do the bulk of the talking, most of it about the legend, Brian Wilson.
The occasion is the U.S. premiere of a new and appropriately unconventional Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. It opens in theaters June 5.
The Beach Boys leader has survived mental illness, way too much LSD, an abusive psychiatrist and the expectations that accompany a visionary songwriter with an angelic voice. Wilson is still here, and Cusack and Pohlad seem genuinely protective of pop music's ultimate tragic genius. They answer questions Wilson would rather not address himself, like what it was like to see his topsy-turvy story played out on the screen.
Cusack and Pohlad remain in awe of the Beach Boys' leader. They handle with care, on-screen and off.
"I've been listening to him for a long time," says Cusack, who plays Wilson in the 1980s; Paul Dano plays a younger version. "But to play him, I immersed myself in his music in a way you can only do if you're terrified of getting it wrong."
Cusack plays the burned-out Wilson of middle age, in the grips of the over-medicating shrink Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and seeking salvation from a woman who cares (Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter). Dano plays the artist as a young man, in thrall to sonic experiments that the rest of his band doesn't quite understand.
There's a sort of pop cult surrounding the Wilson sound and story, and it's not hard to see and hear why. The creative pinnacle, at least among finished Beach Boys albums, is 1966's Pet Sounds. But there were hints of the greatness to come in the band's earlier, pure pop catalog, those bouncy anthems of California living that made stars of Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love and family friend Al Jardine.
Pohlad, like Cusack, grew up a fan. He just didn't realize how much was there until he got a little older and wiser.
"We just thought surf music, summer and all that," Pohlad says. "But what makes it endure is the quality of the music and the arrangements. You don't really think about that when you're a kid. It's only later that you realize the complexity of what Brian was doing."
The movie's highlights come with the lovingly filmed dramatization of the Pet Sounds recording sessions. The moments reproduced here are magical. Dano's Wilson plucks at a piano's strings with a paper clip to conjure the otherworldly introduction to "You Still Believe in Me." He dazzles the studio musicians from the Wrecking Crew with his baroque imagination. These are sacred episodes in pop-music history, and it's hard not to feel a tingle down the spine watching them come to life here.
Make no mistake: This is a Brian Wilson movie, not a Beach Boys movie. He's the hero. The villains include Landy and the Wilson family patriarch, Murry Wilson, who sees Brian as more of a rival than a son. Mike Love (Jake Abel) doesn't come off well either. He's the pragmatic stick in the mud who objects to Brian's artistic flights of fancy. Like Murry, he wants more of the same formula that made the Beach Boys famous.
It's hard to say what Wilson, now 72, thinks about all this. He's there in the room, but his mind seems elsewhere, and he's happy to let the movie guys do the talking. He still gets around: His upcoming solo tour will bring him to Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie June 24, four days after his 73rd birthday.
The tour talk perks him up for a moment. "I'm a little scared to take a tour," he says. "I'm in my early 70s. And I always had a rough time touring. Early flights in the morning, sing on key whether you're tired or not, keep singing and singing until you're done." (In the film, we see Dano's Wilson suffer a crippling anxiety attack on an airplane during an early tour.)
You can understand the protective instincts of Cusack and Pohlad. Wilson is a fragile giant, a genius who paid the price, but he's still standing.
"It's absolutely mind blowing to hear what he created," Cusack says. He pauses. "It's so weird to even talk about Brian with him sitting right here."