Love & Mercy [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (28th September 2015).
The Film

An unusually-structured biopic on The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy named after the title track to his self-titled 1988 solo album moves back and forth between two tumultuous time periods in the singer/songwriter's life. In the sixties, young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) suffers a panic attack on tour and announces to his bandmates brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (the Footloose remake's Kenny Wormald) and cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) that he can no longer tour and wants to remain in the studio developing their next album. Tormented by auditory hallucinations, Brian self-medicates with marijuana and other drugs and finds his creativity reinvigorated in the studio. When his bandmates return from tour to record, his extreme perfectionism soon wears thin on Mike who finds his lyrics nonsensical and/or drug-related and that the album is not a collaboration so much as Brian using their voices as additional instruments. Brian finds even less support from his father and fired former manager Murray (12 Years a Slave's Bill Camp) who has turned from physical abuse to emotional with backhanded criticisms and then creating/signing band The Sunrays whose Beach Boys-copycat style is exactly what Mike believes they should be getting back to. When the album "Pet Sounds" underperforms in sales despite critical acclaim, Brian and Mike seem to find a compromise in "Good Vibrations" but his co-workers, friends, and family become increasingly concerned for his mental health.

Intercut with this story is the story of Brian Wilson (John Cusack) in 1985 as seen through the eyes of car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who has to be told by Wilson's "twenty-four hour therapist" Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) that the disheveled vagrant who wants to buy an expensive car is a wealthy, acclaimed musician. Perhaps taken aback by how different Brian is from the other men in her life, feeling for the loss of his brother who drowned two years before, and perhaps a little starstruck, Melinda begins seeing him. Brian is frank (or perhaps unable to self-censor) in his shortcomings, his estrangment from his ex-wife (Erin Darke), his mother (Tree of Life's Joanna Going), and his children, and Melinda is surprised that Landy's therapy keeps him isolated from his loved ones. As she continues seeing him under watchful eyes of Landy, his disinterested son (Morgan Phillips), his "drug" guy (Erik Eidem), and various "bodyguards", Melinda is disturbed by how much control the at first seemingly pompous doctor exerts over Brian and how he wants to control their relationship ostensibly for his pateient's own good as Brian works on his auto-biography and his comeback album. When Melinda overhears Landy's verbal abuse and terrified housemaid Gloria (Diana Maria Riva) confirms her suspicions that he is not being medicated so much as drugged, Melinda appeals to Wilson's family (who really have no reason to listen to a car dealer who may have something of her own to gain). When she is unable to convince Brian to stand up to Landy, she refuses to leave Brian alone with him and enlists help to expose Landy.

The deliberately fragmented nature of the storytelling (perhaps reflective of what Wilson is able to remember that has not been framed through the Landy-penned "autobiography") leaves a lot of gaps and takes liberties with what we know of these two periods, striving co-writer Oren Moverman (Hammer's The Quiet Ones) in this "reimagining" for "emotional truth" that may seem to underplay, mis-attribute, or omit certain contributions and culpability with the only help seeming to come from Ledbetter and Wilson's maid Gloria good-natured as they were and the only clear villains being the long-dead (and nonlitigious) Landy and Wilson's father (who shows up at a particularly low point in his son's life to announce that he has sold the band's publishing rights, the songs of which he believes will be forgotten within a few years). If Dano seems off and uneven from the start, it should be remembered that he is already trying to convince himself and others that he is okay when we first meet him; and Cusack's less-showy performance is suited to a man who is a shell of himself who is unrecognizable and unable to recognize who he once was. Although Banks has acquitted herself well elsewhere as an actress, her more effortless roles are usually the first one that come to mind; and she has some very strong moments here when absorbing Wilson's blunt recollections of his relationships with his ex-wife, children, and parents or being caught in between Wilson and Landy. Giamatti is chilling as Landy, accurately portraying his cartoonish and almost moustache-twirling evil without going over the top himself. Perhaps reflective of Wilson's increasing isolation is that his supportive brothers Carl and Dennis recede into the background with only Wilson's father and cousin Mike making an impression during these sequences (although he could be classified as the villain of the sixties/seventies part of the film, the film does try to portray Love as understandably exasperated and skeptical of Wilson's inaccessible genius). Wilson's mother also has little presence in the film, befitting the later Wilson's explanation to Melinda that his mother drank to cope with her husband (in a deleted scene, the only thing she can do when Murray and Carl become combative is to raise her voice). Not so much a fault in the use of Melinda's restricted POV and past Wilson's unreliable one so much as perhaps the filmmakers' tendency to more back or forward when things get too tense, letting its audience off the hook once it has placed them, and Melinda, in untenable positions (as if Wilson cannot confront the source and Melinda feels it is not her place). As the film moves towards its climax with past Wilson spiraling further downward as Melinda decides to take on Landy, one gets the impression that the film was largely constructed in the editing room despite knowledge that the script follows the same structural approach. The most intriguing and stimulating sequences recreate Wilson's sound experiments and interactions with the studio musicians who would come to be known as The Wrecking Crew a name coined by drummer Hal Blaine (seen very briefly here as portrayed by Johnny Sneed) as he explains to artists already at ease and equally inspired by improvisation and innovation the sounds he wants to reproduce. What remains seems a compromised film of strong moments and impressive performances in which the filmmakers either lost interest or were never interested in its resolution (although the end credits do include a stirring performance by the real Brian Wilson).


LionsGate's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer of this Super 16mm-lensed feature wonderfully delineates the ripe and colorful sixties/seventies sequences (one aspect mentioned in the design featurette was recreating in color performances and other archival material that only survive as black-and-white photographs, film, and video) and the whites and blues of the eighties scenes.


The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 not only gives tremendous spread and depth to the music (besides the scoring of Atticus Ross, the music editor and sound designer also had access to original multi-track material of the Beach Boys' music to play with for the studio scenes and as created/recollected in Wilson's mind). The surround field is also used to play with the sounds in Wilson's head from the creative to the tormenting. A Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also included as well as both English and English HoH subtitles and ones in Spanish.


Extras start off with an audio commentary with director/producer Bill Pohlad and executive producer/co-writer Oren Moverman who discuss the mostly hands-off participation of Wilson and Ledbetter and the trust they had to build with the couple to enable them to tell the story as they wanted, as well as portraying other people who are still living. The filmmakers note that a persistent concern about the film was whether audiences would actually believe the factual-but-cartoonish behavior of Landy. They also note - in discussing some of the details of Wilson's life not covered in the film - the irony that Landy actually did save Wilson early on. They also discuss the way the script was structured and the conceit of casting two different actors to play a single character in different phases of life, as well as the research each actor did and their attempts to not merely mimic Wilson as a singer or as a person. In "A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy" (10:48), Pohlad discusses the decision not to uses different lenses or film stock to distinguish the era while production designer Keith P. Cunningham focuses on the color schemes, creating period locations by stripping away modern elements, tracking down authentic locations or reasonable substitutes (like a house similar to Wilson's hills residence that offered an almost identical view), and costume designer Danny Glicker discusses his rationale for the each character's style of clothing and how it is worn by them (as well the vertical bar motif in the band's shirts). "A Side/B Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson" (25:31) looks at Wilson's and his wife's initial apprehension about the story of his life being told by strangers, the choice to have two actors playing Wilson at different time periods (as well as the concern as to whether Dano could sing or keep time), and offer excerpts from a 1978 interview with Wilson in his bed and a later 1985 interview that included Landy (both of which suggest that Cusack was dead-on with his portrayal).

Four deleted scenes (7:27) include Wilson's meeting with a dismissive and confrontational Phil Spector (Jonathan Slavin) - who is not seen in the finished cut although Wilson comes to believe Spector has his house bugged - a family meeting in which Wilson tells them that he will no longer tour and will stay in the studio (the poolside discussion in the finished film is more concise and effective but this deleted bit does show how tense the family gatherings were and how Brian was not the only one affected by his father's treatment), a scene in which Wilson attempts to hire a jingle writer to collaborate on his lyrics, and a scene in which Murray interrupts a "Good Vibrations" recording session (which was redundant since the scene in the finished film in which Murray interrupts them to sample his Sunrays album is more effectively cruel and callous) that ended up being excerpted in the opening credits montage. Trailers for other titles are included both at startup and accessible from the special features menu. The disc is bookmarkable.


The Film: B+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A-


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