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Love & Mercy

(2015) *** 1/2 Pg-13
120 min. Roadside Attractions. Director: Bill Pohlad. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Brett Davern, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp.

/content/films/4802/1.jpgCan a person ever really change? At least for Brian Wilson—the musical genius behind the Beach Boys—the unfortunate, unequivocal, answer is "yes." The honorable biopic Love & Mercy literalizes this truism by casting two actors as Wilson (Paul Dano and John Cusack) and focusing on two periods in the man's life: his most creatively fertile period, from roughly 1963 to 1967, and the period during which he met his current wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and broke free of notoriously controlling therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), from roughly 1986 to 1991.

Wilson's tale of triumph, tragedy, and survival remains one of the best known in rock-and-roll history, and by dramatizing these episodes in Wilson's life, Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner's Love & Mercy screenplay avoids the trap of becoming another slavish chronology of the Beach Boys (in fact, some key events, like the drowning death of Wilson's brother Dennis, are referenced so obliquely that someone unfamiliar with the band's history would have a hard time putting two and two together). As with the script Moverman co-wrote with Todd Haynes for the unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, this one takes a step back and considers what best represents the complex pop-star subject: Wilson's summery ascendance as the astonishingly talented pop-symphonic composer of "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations," his fall into deeply damaging drug abuse and crippling bedridden depression, the winter of his discontent under Landy's control, and the redemptive spring of "love and mercy" (also the title of a 1988 Wilson composition) offered by Melinda and reunited family and friends.

Of course, real life was not all as simple as "heroes and villains," the love of a good woman saving Wilson from a horrible man (Landy, after all, helped Wilson out of bed and into physical health in addition to mistreating and mercilessly exploiting him). But in most respects, Love & Mercy proves accurate in spirit and in fan service, including reverently detailed recreations of iconic photoshoots and promo films, concerts, and the studio sessions for masterpiece Pet Sounds (shot in the actual location: Studio 3 of United Western Recorders).

Dano and first-time director and longtime producer Bill Pohlad show considerable finesse in capturing Wilson's brilliance in the studio and the headspace of a musical artist (partly conveyed in musical collages by Atticus Ross); at the piano, Dano also soulfully sings a few of Wilson's best-known songs, though the studio scenes all feature the original session recordings. Cusack bears a lesser resemblance to Wilson and doesn't have Dano's method mien, but he does a solid job of conveying Wilson's loneliness and fear (and something of his post-drug-abuse, brain-fried spaciness) in the shadow of the man who has become his Svengali.

Though the '60s passages feel more authentic, the '80s battle for Wilson's soul gets an effective, economical treatment: Giamatti reins his hammy instincts in just enough to make Landy realistic in his threatening presence, as a power-hungry egotist who feeds on Wilson's celebrity. He chaperones Brian and Melinda's first date, butting in their conversation; such mundane inappropriateness (staged pitch perfectly by Pohlad and the actors) eventually breaks out into outright abuse that makes all but explicit the parallel between Landy and Brian's emotionally and physically abusive father Murry (Bill Camp). In the powerful scene of Dano demo-ing "God Only Knows" to Murry, his father first appears behind him, out of focus, a deliberate tactic showing how easily he could be mistaken for the later timeline's Landy.

/content/films/4802/3.jpgDano's Wilson asks about music (and specifically "God Only Knows"), "Don't you think it's a spiritual kind of thing?", and Cusack's Wilson explains to Melinda the spirituality of musical inspiration ("Every once in a while, your soul comes out to play") in terms that could also describe how her presence enables him emotionally. It's the same kind of other-consciousness understanding that inspires "Good Vibrations" ("Brian's pocket symphony to God") and demonstrates Brian's core belief and desire for uncomplicated, unconditional goodness—the personality he lost during the years he spent narcotized in bed and psychically untethered from his first wife and daughters.

With this knowledge, Brian's awakening connection to Melinda takes on a kind of terrible beauty and poignancy: he explains to her that Landy has him on a "self-nourishment" program of telling himself "I love you" five times a day, and adds, "Sometimes I wish I had someone else to say it to." It's the same kind of heartbreaking sentiment found, to this day, in Wilson's deceptively simple but often gut-punching lyrics. In sum, Love & Mercy takes a considered approach to Wilson, sound in dramatic and editorial construction and insightful in its psychological subtexts. Wilson's innocent essence—optimistic and pure in its spiritual desires for love and art—make his story deeply moving: it's easy to get swept up in his enthusiasm for creation and his pain at unjust, unfathomable abuse. He's not the man he used to be, but he's surely earned his happy ending.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/15/2015

Distributor: Lionsgate

Lionsgate brings Love & Mercy home in a Blu-ray platter that gives off good vibrations. Picture quality is excellent in this hi-def presentation, which ably handles shifts in film stock (between 16mm and 35mm) for an overall polished, clean, and detailed visual scheme. As might be expected from a film that trades in the not-always fulfilled promise of sun, surf, and blue skies, the color palette yields both strikingly bold color (especially the blues of waves and Melinda's dress) and pointedly muted hues or brilliant whites for Brian's post-brainwash days.

Bonus features are excellent. The only bonuses one might wish for would be more extensive interviews with Brian and Melinda Wilson and/or more documentary material about or concert footage of Wilson. But there are other venues for such material, and this disc delivers a nice behind-the-scenes overview of the film's intentions. Most extensive in this regard is the feature commentary with director/producer Bill Pohlad and executive producer/co-writer Oren Moverman, which finds the director and principal writer discussing their conceptual approach(es) to the material and its execution from the standpoints of casting, production, and editing.

"A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy" (10:48, HD) is the shorter of the two featurettes, oddly listed before the more conventional making-of overview. This piece, as the title suggests, hones in on the locations and design elements with Pohlad, production designer Keith Cunningham, Paul Dano, John Cusack, and costume designer Danny Glicker.

The very well-produced "A Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson" (25:31, HD) takes a bit of extra care in rooting out (and presumably paying for) vintage interview clips and studio footage of Wilson (including bits of Don Was' Wilson doc I Just Wasn't Made for These Times) to complement the usual B-roll footage from the set of Love and Mercy and the requisite talent interviews with Pohlad, Dano, Cusack, executive producer/co-writer Oren Moverman, producer John Wells, Brian Wilson, Melnda Wilson, co-producer Claire Rudnick Polstein, Brett Davern, supervising music consultant Darian Sahanaja, technical engineering studio consultant Mark Linett, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti.

Also included are four worthy "Deleted Scenes" (7:27 with "Play All" option, HD): "Brian Meets His Idol" (:58, HD), "Brian Talks with His Family" (2:14, HD), "Brian Looks for a Collaborator" (:44, HD), "Murry Interrupts the Recording Session" (3:29, HD). These whet the appetite...if only we could see a few from the Cusack half of the film as well.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray release of Love & Mercy is a must for Wilson fans and comes highly recommended to all as an opportunity to check out or revisit one of the best films of 2015.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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