Music biopics generally follow a specific formula. The film opens with the subject in his later years on the cusp of his professional comeback. He flashes back to the various highs and lows of their life. These include plenty of scenes involving drugs and infidelity. Movies like Ray and Walk the Line follow the formula so rigidly that Judd Apatow had a blast parodying the genre with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Much like what Austin Powers did to the spy flick, it’s hard to take any biopic seriously when it refuses to shake things up.
Get on Up, Universal’s James Brown film, attempted to break away from conventions through a non-linear narrative, a cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album. Unfortunately, Get on Up still fell into the trap of trying to distill an entire lifespan into a two-hour movie.
Love & Mercy tends to be more successful as it focuses on two major periods in the life of Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys and a man who has battled mental illness for decades. The majority of Love & Mercy takes place in the 80’s with a middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack). Wilson is a fragile man shuffling about in the sun-drenched environs of Malibu. He is still recovering from an infamous two-year period of drugs and depression. Most of his time was spent laying in bed while his weight ballooned to over 300lbs.
Wilson’s salvation came in the form of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a controversial therapist who preceded to micromanage every aspect of Wilson’s life. Dr. Landy keeps Wilson medicated and tells him when to eat and what to eat. It was the love of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who he met at a Cadillac dealership, that Wilson was able to escape from Landy’s clutches.
Love & Mercy periodically flashes back to the 60’s when a then-23 year old Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) would produce Pet Sounds. Critics consider the album to be not only the best Beach Boys album, but also one of the best rock albums of all time. Wilson strived to create something deeper than the innocuous pop songs about surfing and riding in cars that had become standard for the group. Wilson’s complex compositions involved layers of instruments and even barking dogs, much to the consternation of his bandmates.
After making his directorial debut in 1990 with the obscure Old Explorers, Bill Pohlad returns to the director’s chair after spending years producing prestigious pictures such as Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave. Working from a script by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, Pohlad follows in Wilson’s footsteps by mixing disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Front and center are Paul Dano, who bears a passing resemblance to a young Brian Wilson, and John Cusack, who bears no resemblance to Wilson or Dano. Yet, it’s hardly a concern when the performances are so spot on, especially Giamatti as the menacing Dr. Landy. Funny that Giamatti would play a similar role in another music biopic as manager Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton. At times, Landy’s disturbing treatment of Wilson stretches the realm of believably, but according to the real Melinda Ledbetter (now the 2nd Mrs. Brian Wilson), the treatment was much worse than dramatized.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Again, Pohlad chooses to mix various elements to craft Love & Mercy. Both 35mm and 16mm were used with a bright and vibrant color palette to signify Wilson’s more lucid moments.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 with a mix that captures Wilson’s penchant for dense productions as well as the turmoil of his mental state.
The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary track by Bill Pohlad and Oren Moverman. Both participants discuss the decision to cast two actors for the same role, shooting on film, meeting with the real Brian and Melinda Wilson, and the obligation to get their story right.
A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy (10:48) looks at the production design and costuming that was necessary to authentic looks of times past.
A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson (25:31) is a behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses on adapting the true story for the big screen.
Rounding out the disc is a collection of deleted scenes.
Film Value: 8
The peppy, radio friendly tunes of the Beach Boys belied the darkness that plagued Brian Wilson. While other films would depict the artist’s most triumphant moments on stage, Love & Mercy shows at his best inside the recording studio. Love & Mercy is a breath of fresh air to a stale genre. This is a well-structured film emphasized by stellar performances from its leads.