Love and Mercy

Dr Jeremy Swinson on a film directed by Bill Pohlid.

Those of us of a certain age were lucky enough to live out our adolescence in the 1960s against a backdrop of some of the most exciting and creative periods of modern music. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, the Who and from America the Beach Boys provided us with a never-ending stream of what proved to be classic pop. The Beach Boys originally emerged singing jolly ditties about surf sunshine and girls in distinctive high falsetto harmonies, but in 1969 they changed tack and produced a much more serious collection of songs in a ground-braking album, Pet Sounds. The record was critically acclaimed sold well in the UK but failed to sell in the USA.

This film is an account of the life of the creative force behind the group, Brian Wilson. It is set in two periods of his life. First around the time of the making of Pet Sounds when the part of Brian is played by Paul Deno and 20 years later when his life is changed by meeting the woman who was to become his wife, when the part is played by John Cusack. It is this second period that forms the core of the film. After the lukewarm sales of Pet Sounds and despite the success of their greatest hit ‘Good Vibrations’ Brian Wilson spent more and more time isolated in the studio trying to produce a follow-up record ‘Smile’.

By this time he has become increasingly dependent on the drugs readily available in California at the time and reached a state when he had an inevitable mental breakdown to the extent that his paranoia led him to destroy the tapes of ‘Smile’.

We meet him again in the 1980s when he is a pale shadow of his former self, heavily dependent on medication provided for him by his personal psychologist Dr Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. Dr Landy it appears controls all aspects of his life, provides him with bodyguards who monitor all aspects of his life, even to extent of vetting and ultimately intimidating the young woman, Malinda Ledbetter played by Elizabeth Banks who he meets while buying a car. She immediately recognises that Brian is totally dependent upon and controlled by Landy. The film is essentially about their relationship and how she attempts to release Brian from the all-pervading influence of Landy whose role as psychologist appears to encompass, manager, financial adviser and record producer.

The film successfully captures the hedonistic nature of the 1960s. The sequences recreating the recording of the music are fascinating and sound every bit as good as the original. In fact some of the scenes of the recording of Pet Sounds were filmed in the original studio.

To put it mildly, psychology does not come out of this film well. Dr Landy is portrayed as an evil genius who went to almost any length to manipulate and control his client. He appears motivated by shear greed, be devoid of any ethical or professional standards whatsoever and was only exposed when he changed his client’s will in his favour. We find out at the end of the film that Landy lost his licence to practise as a psychologist in California once he was exposed. After seeing the film one wonders how on earth he continued to practise anywhere in the world, but apparently he did continue to work in New Mexico and Hawaii.  

Films in which psychologists are depicted in a positive light are many: Sixth Sense (1999) and Good Will Hunting (1997) come to mind. It is rare to see our profession portrayed as such an evil influence as Landy. What makes it even more shocking is of course that the film is biographical. Dr Landy is not a monster created by Hammer House of Horror, but a real-life psychologist like you and me.

It is salutary for us to acknowledge that for all the good that  we perceive that we may bring to our work with clients young and old, members of our profession are capable of using their psychological skills for such evil means.

- Reviewed by Dr Jeremy Swinson who is an Educational Psychologist from Liverpool

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