The Paul Zollo Blog: Van Dyke Parks On His Portrayal In Love And Mercy

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With Beautiful on Broadway, the musical based on the life and work of Carole King, not unlike the movie I’m Not There (about Dylan), we see this new development of movies and musicals being created about living songwriters. These works inevitably mythologize these modern heroes, which is appropriate – there are few humans who impact our culture with the purity and grace of songwriters.

But by bending reality into myth, some facts become musical fiction, and sometimes a songwriter’s impact is diminished, rather than exaggerated.

Such is the case with Love and Mercy, the new movie about the great genius of surf music, Brian Wilson. Portrayed by not one but two actors, Paul Dano (as the young Brian) and John Cusack, Brian Wilson’s role as creator of masterpieces is well presented.

But not all of his collaborators got as well represented. Also portrayed in this film is the subject of our most recent Icons column, the great Van Dyke Parks, whose part is acted by Max Schneider.

Van Dyke, who recently performed two sold-out farewell shows in Los Angeles, is also a musical genius, as his countless orchestral albums and movie scores attest. But Brian mostly was in need of lyrics, and Van Dyke wrote brilliant ones for famous songs such as “Surf’s Up” and “Heroes And Villains.” But, as Beach Boys fans know well, he was also instrumental in helping Brian realize the music.  In an email, Van Dyke expressed that his portrayal in this film did not accurately represent his impact on not only the lyrics of these songs, but the music, the arrangements and production.

“Try as I might,” he wrote, “I’m having trouble with the omissions in the recent Melinda Wilson bio-pic. I’ve likened the bowed, secco 8th-note cello triplets in `Good Vibrations’ (my idea) to the signature shot of the `Ruby Slippers’ in The Wizard of Oz. An audio tape in the Capitol Records’ archives reveals my voice at the Jessie Ehrlich date (he, the cellist with no music paper on his stand):  ‘No Brian…tell Jessie ‘arco’…not ‘barko’…with the bow.’ And nothing can explain the number of times (on the box-set Smile) one hears ‘Count it off Van Dyke.’ Still, in the face of such intentional offense, we do well to cite Harry Truman: ‘…it’s astonishing really, what one can get done, if you just don’t care who gets the credit.’”