It’s not necessary to elaborate on the importance of sound in a Brian Wilson biopic. Love & Mercy (2015) is a haunting portrayal of how sound both helped make and break Wilson, during and after his Beach Boys years. A gifted arranger and songwriter, Wilson had an incredible ear for the way sounds could be put together. But the onset of his bipolar schizoaffective disorder also first took the form of auditory hallucinations. These two prominent realities about Brian Wilson’s life are the focal points of the biopic, and creating a score and soundtrack that simultaneously reflected musical brilliance and mental instability called for the seasoned touch of composer Atticus Ross.
Ross is most recently known for his Oscar-winning work with Trent Reznor scoring David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), as well as Fincher's 2011 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and 2014’s Gone Girl. He was in rock band 12 Rounds back in the 1990s and currently works with Reznor and his wife Mariqueen Maandig in their electronic indie group How To Destroy Angels. His music is innovative and often cerebral, combining sounds and effects in unorthodox ways to produce unique combinations; one might say he's a modern Wilson with new tools.
As someone who isn’t a great fan of biopics, Ross wasn’t originally that interested in the film. But after he was told the concept of the picture and understood Pohlad's vision for the piece, he learned a wealth of material existed from Wilson’s recording sessions during the experimental Pet Sounds and Smile days and thought that if he could acquire that audio he could do something interesting.
Speaking on The Frame with John Horn, Ross said, “remarkably, this hard drive arrived at my house with this phenomenal amount of material. It was all the masters, but I suppose what's more remarkable to the fan is just the amount of material. 'Good Vibrations' alone — I think I've got 68 versions of it. He would leave tape rolling [in the studio] and you could hear him [in the control room]. I think that people, me included, had come to see Brian as spaced out. But when you hear him talking, instructing the musicians — [he's] incredibly focused, self-possessed, confident, direct... I mean it's incredible.“
Much of what was produced for the film is a mash-up of Ross’s work with Wilson’s material. Ross continues, “The idea was that Brian should be ever-present. So we're taking parts of his a cappella pieces and sampling them, and then making new melodies that feel evocative of his work… There's one scene — it's one of the darkest in the film — when he's in studio and his father ... comes in to play that dreadful 'Fun Fun Fun' song. [Wilson] goes into the control room and puts on the headphones and has this terrible experience. That was the hardest cue to do and it ended up being my wife's voice. She's singing.”
Ross said he was inspired by The Beatles’ Revolution 9 and the 2004 Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up album The Gray Album. Using The Beatles as inspiration for the picture was fitting as Wilson’s desire to create Pet Sounds came after he heard Rubber Soul and was concerned about becoming musically obsolete. (As mentioned in the film, Paul McCartney would later say Wilson’s “God Only Knows” is one of his favorite songs ever written.)
It’s very difficult to take an audience into the mind of someone suffering from a mental illness using a largely visual medium. Ross’s soundtrack, combined with Dano’s performance, comes as close as possible to establishing a sense of what was going on inside Wilson’s volatile mind. It takes a talented composer to craft a means of letting us hear the inner workings of musician’s head before he figures out a way to make it real.
Vulture describes the result, saying, “Atticus Ross’s score creates a floating, evocative soundscape, which is Brian Wilson–esque without a trace of plagiarism.”
Ross told The Credits, “There was one bit, when Brian came to the song 'Smile,' when he was very isolated, and he was interested in making art and pushing the form. His songs are incredibly complicated, you’re not going to get a key change in a pop song today, whereas some of his songs have three or four, so he’s working in this incredibly advanced stage, and the idea was to keep him present. There’s one point where he’s under water because he’s trying to get away from everybody telling him how 'Smile' sucks, and we had to put together this thing where there’s up to eight tracks of 'Smile' playing simultaneously, and it was a challenge.”
The combination of symbolic cinematics with the soundtrack is powerful on many such occasions.
The Flare writes, “Composer Atticus Ross works wonders with the score, using a great wealth of Wilson’s music in different ways and choosing songs that fit with the emotional tone of the scene brilliantly. Hearing the instrumental version of 'Don’t Talk' play as Wilson takes LSD for the first time is haunting. Witnessing the song 'Til’ I Die' play over a surreal, Kubrickian scene in which Wilson has an epiphany made me cry because of the powerful combination of imagery and music.”
Get a sense of the composition below, where you can listen to the whole soundtrack. "The Black Hole" is the first song heard in the film, before the opening credit montage, which evocatively sets the stage for what's to come.