Love, mercy, and the cost of innovation

Surf Days are here.
Bobby Schutz | E+ | Getty Images
Surf Days are here.

I caught the new movie "Love and Mercy" this weekend and as a big fan of the Beach Boys and especially the "Pet Sounds" album, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And that's true even though the film covered a lot of familiar ground on the topics of the serious abuse Brian Wilson suffered at the hands of his father and later from his psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy.

But what was truly great about the film and the performance by Paul Dano, who played the young Brian Wilson, was the way it depicted the pressures that even the most talented innovators are under and how without a strong support system they can succumb to those pressures.

Much of the movie focuses on the creative process behind the "Pet Sounds" album, conceived and arranged by Brian alone while the rest of the Beach Boys were out on tour in late 1965 and early 1966. In addition to pop chart staples like "Wouldn't it be Nice" and "Sloop John B," the album featured innovative instrumental tracks, the hauntingly beautiful classic "God Only Knows," and unusual melodies and sounds that included using bobby pins to pluck piano strings and the noises from dogs and farm animals brought into the studio.

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A touching scene in the film involves one of the highly professional session musicians assuring Brian that while he and his fellow studio artists have worked with all the greatest names in pop music, it's Wilson's work that is consistently impressing them in ways they could never have imagined. And yet, the good feelings the audience gets from that scene are all too ephemeral as we immediately see that despite that very high praise from a very informed source, Brian still agonizes over his father's and the rest of the group's reaction to the work. Sure enough, Brian's father is not impressed and neither is fellow band member and Brian's cousin Mike Love. Both are angrily confused by the new direction Brian is taking and urge him to stick with the old formula of simpler and more marketable hits. Wilson begins to wilt physically and especially mentally from the criticism and pressure. And without a strong and prepared combination of family and friends to support him, Wilson eventually fell into a very long and well-documented period of mental incapacity that lasted about 20 years.

There are some good lessons to be learned from what happened to Brian Wilson for those who seek to innovate and challenge the status quo in the business world. Bystanders might simply assume that great ideas bring almost immediate rewards and adulation to those who conceived them. But true innovators almost always face everything from public derision to outright outrage on a regular basis. It helps to have strong convictions to get through all that, but a supportive set of family and loved ones is essential too. For example, we know Steve Jobs was steadfast in his belief in himself and ideas, but it didn't hurt that by all accounts Jobs was raised by enormously supportive and loving parents. Wilson didn't have that luxury, and there are probably a lot of other artistic and tech geniuses who don't either.

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Brian Wilson's later life in the mid-1980s is depicted in the movie by John Cusack, who does an excellent job showing us what Wilson's life had become roughly 20 years after his initial breakdown. All of Wilson's artistic brilliance seems lost as he is now dominated by the controlling Dr. Landy who actually obtained legal guardianship over Wilson some years earlier. It isn't until Wilson is freed from Landy, thanks to a woman he began dating after a lucky meeting, that the real-life Wilson was able to become musically productive again.

The lesson from "Love and Mercy" for those of us who cover and analyze amazingly successful business people and marketplace innovators is not to pity them for the hurdles and criticism they undoubtedly faced on the way up and will inevitably continue to face. But it is important for us to remember that it's more than likely that to weather that pressure, these disruptors have some kind of parental or spousal support that may remain behind the scenes. And it's important for those who do aspire to really create something different and new to make sure they have the courage and personal support to get there without falling apart.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.